Leader Blues

Saturday, November 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Devils dig in to defend title

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner’s whistle cut sharply through the fuzz of the phone connection.

It was the aural equivalent of chewing tinfoil, and it was followed by the bark of Joyner’s voice as he stepped away to instruct his players.

“You’ve got to be scrappy,” said Joyner, picking up the phone to resume his chat about the challenges and pressures of being the defending 6A state champion. “We’ve got to rebound by committee and try to be as defensively sound as we can be.”

Joyner’s youthful team, of the 6A-East, will begin its title defense at Little Rock McClellan on Tuesday. In all, four area boys and girls teams will open the 2009-10 season Tuesday night or next week.

Riverview plays Monday at Cave City followed on Tuesday by Cabot’s boys playing host to Searcy, which has already gotten in a game against Vilonia, and Beebe travels to Benton.

Sylvan Hills, Lonoke and North Pulaski open play the following week, while Harding Academy and Abundant Life, the only non-football playing school of the bunch, have already seen action.

Questions abound.

Can a boys basketball team from football-mad Cabot advance farther than the state semifinals the Panthers reached last year?

Can Lonoke’s girls live up to their high preseason expectations? Can Sylvan Hills’ talented group of sophomore boys grow up quickly?

But in the short run, at least, eyes are on Jacksonville, which may explain why Joyner was distracted during his recent phone conversation.

“I’ve already had some people we beat last year tell me they’re going to try to beat me by 30,” Joyner said. “They’re not going to take it easy on us. That’s not the nature of the business.”

Jacksonville charged to the state tournament last year and won its championship by beating Little Rock Hall 63-62 in a back-and-forth final.

“Last year was last year,” Joyner said. “Those guys paid their dues. We won the championship with kids that lived in Jacksonville. We didn’t get transfers from here, transfers from there. We won a championship with kids we taught from the ninth grade to senior year.

But most of those kids are gone, leaving only Deshone McClure as a returning starter.

But at least having McClure at the two-guard is a good place to start, even if teams decide to key on him, Joyner said.

“You ain’t got to worry about Deshone getting his chances,” Joyner said. “He’s going to get his shots off no matter what the other teams do. He’s a good hand. He’s battle tested. He’s been through these wars since he’s been a 10th-grader.”
Battle testing for the others will come quickly enough in the 6A-East, Joyner said.

“These guys are going to get their nose bloodied a few times but they’ve got to learn to play at this level,” Joyner said. “This is a tough conference.”

How tough?

“You look at the last five or six years and the state champions coming out of this conference,” Joyner said. “And the number of championships the coaches in this conference have won. West Memphis and Parkview and Hall. That will let you gauge it right there.”

Joyner said his focus in the preseason has been on completing. He noted seven players from last year’s team have gone on to college.

“We’re talking about are they developing into college players,” Joyner said. “Learn with a great deal of understanding. That’s what we’re expecting. If we win along the way, that’s great.”