Leader Blues

Friday, March 13, 2009

SPORTS >> Recommitted Falcons ready to make up for ’08 disappointment

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

It was a long and difficult off-season for the North Pulaski Falcons.

It also proved to be an important and invaluable time. Time the Falcons used to refocus, rejuvenate and rededicate.

The 2007-08 season was to have been a special one after the Falcons returned just about everybody from the previous spring’s state-playoff team. And they appeared to be right on schedule when they raced out to a 3-0 start to the 5A-East Conference race.

Then, things went terribly wrong. Injuries, narrow losses and team turmoil sent the Falcons to four losses in their next five games. Though they rallied to win their next four, late-season losses to Wynne and Nettleton eliminated them from a state playoff berth.

“It definitely fueled our fire in the offseason,” said North Pulaski coach Ray Cooper, who will lead his recommitted 25-6 Falcons into today’s 5A state championship game against Greene County Tech. Tip-off at Summit Arena in Hot Springs is set for 12:45. “

“I didn’t let them forget about it. After coming off a playoff berth the previous year and coming back with all the guys intact except two, we expected to be back and maybe even make a run for it.”

The Falcons lost three key players off last year’s 16-11 team, but they had plenty coming back, including deadeye guard Aaron Cooper, slashing forward Daquan Bryant, Kyron Ware, big man Carlos Donley and inspirational leader Joe Agee. They, along with the development of the energetic Jerald Blair and the return of Troy Green from a car accident two years earlier, as well as the presence of several key role players, have brought North Pulaski’s first-ever state basketball championship within reach.

It is also North Pulaski’s first appearance in a state basketball title game.

Standing in the Falcons’ way today is a difficult and familiar foe. Familiar not only to North Pulaski, which battled the Golden Eagles in the 5A East the past several seasons, but familiar to Summit Arena. This will be GCT’s third consecutive trip to the title game. The Eagles (22-5) won it two years ago, but fell to Siloam Springs last March. And to hear head coach Scott Bowlin tell it, just being back again is not enough.

“We’re kind of viewing it as (an all-or-nothing),” said Bowlin, whose Eagles beat Sylvan Hills, Fairview and Siloam Springs to get here. “We got beat in the finals last year and embarrassed to go with it. These seniors have won something like 83 percent of their games and I think if you ask all six of them, they’ll tell you they want to etch their names in school history.”

Ironically, it was these same Eagles who began the Falcons’ tailspin last year when they pulled away late for a 70-57 win in a game that spilled over into bad tempers and tension. Neither coach said that the bad blood from that game would play any part in today’s title tilt.

“After it was over and after we won here,” said Cooper, referring to North Pulaski’s 53-52 victory at the Falcons’ Nest, “we never talked about it again. We’re only focused on Greene County Tech. That other stuff is nothing but a distraction.”

Bowlin agreed. “That was just two high-strung coaches and two competitive high-strung teams battling,” he said. “Talking about that takes away what this game is all about.”

While Greene County Tech was mostly cruising through its side of the bracket last week, North Pulaski was just struggling to survive, edging West Helena Central and CAC before having a little easier time of it in the semis in a 17-point win over Morrilton.

The Golden Eagles start four seniors and a junior, all of whom have two years of state championship experience coming into the game. They are led by 6-4 Wes Livingston, an outside-inside player who, as much as anybody, is the Eagles’ go-to guy. But they are a balanced and disciplined team and have a brawny man on the post in the 6-3 Caleb Hartwig.

“They look a lot like they did last year,” Cooper said. “They run a disciplined offensive system with a lot of twists to it. They scramble and fight and they don’t beat themselves. That’s what makes it so tough.”

Though the Falcons should certainly enjoy a quickness advantage today, these Eagles are not averse to running and can play pretty much any style that is required.

“We played in a couple of national tournaments this year so we’re used to playing teams like (North Pulaski),” Bowlin said. “We can adjust to any way you want to go. But do we really want to get into a relay race with North Pulaski? No, that’s when they’re at their best. They’re very good at that. As far as size, we match up well.”

Cooper said he thinks his Falcons can adjust to different styles, as well.

“We prefer to run, but we’ve also worked hard on playing at a slower pace,” he said. “In playoff games, it happens that way sometimes. Greene County Tech is not going to score 80 points. So we’ll have to be patient, pick our spots, look for opportunities.”

Whatever happens, this season has been ever so much more enjoyable for Cooper, his players and the fans. Cooper said the support shown his team has really inspired them. And he’s happy to have a cohesive team again after last year’s turmoil.

“These guys work so well together and pull for each other,” he said. “There’s no jealousy. They’re all close. I think last year helped bring them together.

“We have not had to struggle to get them to work hard.”