Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

SPORTS >> Red Devils, Lions on upswing

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

Jacksonville got back into the victory column Friday and is hoping to keep it going in this week’s 6A-East game at Searcy.

The problem, Red Devils coach Mark Whatley said, is once-struggling Searcy has gotten a taste of success too.

“They’ve learned how to win again and that makes them dangerous,” Whatley said.

The Red Devils (2-4, 1-2) ended a three-game losing streak last week with a resounding, 46-0 homecoming victory over Little Rock Hall.

Searcy, on the other hand, had to travel to consistently dominant West Memphis and suffered a 40-3 loss. But the Lions, under first-year coach Tim Harper, have scored victories over Little Rock Parkview and Little Rock Fair after winning just three games the previous four seasons.

“We just feel like maybe our best days are ahead of us. That starts now. That’s our little motto is ‘Right now,’ ” Harper said.

Harper said that in their losses the Lions (2-4, 1-2) did as much to hurt themselves with turnovers — like the interception thrown on the first play at West Memphis — and miscues as their opponents did, and he feels like his young team is beginning to cut down on such mistakes.
Whatley agreed.

“They’re a much-improved football team,” Whatley said. “They do a lot of things offensively that cause problems. Multiple formations. He does a good job of doing things to set up things.”

“There’s glimpses of exactly what I want them to do,” Harper said. “Last week we had a couple runs that were just hard-nosed football. That’s the kind of system I want. We want to run the football tough but I don’t want to be tied into the running game so much we can’t throw it.”

In a plus for Searcy, the team gets to return to Lions Stadium after having to play scheduled home games at Bald Knob because of faulty light standards.

“The lights are fixed,” Harper said.

All the better to see a flashy Jacksonville offense that Harper said features faster skill players than West Memphis has.

“Do we think we can play with Jacksonville? Yes sir,” Harper said. “Do we think we can get beat by Jacksonville? No doubt about it. We can get beat by anybody, but the point is, Jacksonville, they’ve got great speed and that’s the thing that scares you the most.”

Jacksonville showed plenty of offense in its two losses leading up to Friday’s victory. The Red Devils scored 28 second-half points and rolled up well over 400 total yards in the 35-27 loss at Mountain Home, and Jacksonville jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Jonesboro before falling 28-14.

But it was the defense led by linebacker Michael Thornabar and defensive back Jacarious Jordan that led Jacksonville (2-4, 1-2) to last week’s palate-cleansing victory.

Thornabar, who suffered a shoulder injury earlier in the season, had three fumble recoveries and Jordan had two interceptions and blocked a punt.

“I still think this game is won with team performance,” Whatley said. “But I’d have to tip my hat to our defense to put us in the situations they put us in.”

The big plays gave the Red Devils field position for scoring drives of 27, 9, 22 and 42 yards in the first quarter, which ended with Jacksonville leading Hall 25-0.

“The plus side of the field four times and then the offense turned around and did something with it,” Whatley said. “But I think that was the big key, getting out hot on them and I think that was the big difference in the ballgame.”

Whatley agreed it was satisfying to see a complete game out of his team, but he said there was no reason not to expect it.

“We’ve played hard and pretty good the last three weeks,” Whatley said. “We just hadn’t been able to come out of there with a victory. I hadn’t been able to fault the effort we’ve played with at all this year, which says a lot for our football team.”

But the race for the 6A-East’s six playoff spots is tightening. West Memphis and Jonesboro are 3-0 in the conference and play each other this week, while Mountain Home is 2-1 and three others, including Jacksonville and Searcy, are 1-2.

“It’s the same as last week,” Whatley said. “We’ve got to win the rest of them. We can’t drop any more. The Mountain Home loss and the Jonesboro loss puts you behind the 8-ball.”

Searcy is in the same boat, but trying to grow up as a team at the same time.

“Our kids are pretty resilient,” Harper said. “They’ve been through a lot before I got here. Unfortunately we’ve learned a lot about losing. We’re going to keep a positive attitude, keep working hard and everything is going to get better.”