Leader Blues

Friday, December 18, 2009

SPORTS >> Devils navigating a learning curve

Jacksonville senior guard Deshone McClure goes up for two at North Pulaski.

Leader sports editor

Defending 6A state champion Jacksonville is still trying to find its rhythm with a relatively young roster.

The Red Devils, who had their rematch with crosstown rival North Pulaski on Friday night, entered the evening 2-4 after a 1-3 showing at the Wampus Cat Invitational in Conway last week.

Highlights for the Red Devils included a 65-55 victory over Sylvan Hills that ended the Bears’ six-game winning streak and a strong showing against 7A Conway, which won 63-60 on a last-second shot.

But, representative of Jacksonville’s early inconsistency, the team followed the Conway game with a flat performance as Fayetteville won 60-31 and sent the Red Devils to a fourth-place finish.

“Mentally it took all we had to try to beat Conway and we’ve got to pace ourselves,” Jacksonville coach Victor Joyner said.

“That’s what we’ve got to learn.”

It is understandable if the Conway game drained Jacksonville somewhat. Joyner said the Wampus Cats outrebounded the Red Devils 15-5 in the first half, and then Jacksonville rallied to outrebound Conway in the second half.

“They have steadily improved every game,” Joyner said. “You look at Conway. Conway is probably going to be right at the top five in the state. We nearly had them beat and they hit a buzzer-beater to beat us.”

Outside expectations may be high after Jacksonville’s victory over Little Rock Hall in last year’s state championship, but Joyner said he has no such expectations himself. Steady improvement is all he is looking for at this point.

“They are working harder than I anticipated them working,” Joyner said. “They work really hard in practice and they’re willing to learn and they want to be good and that’s helping us a little bit, because you don’t have a whole lot of jealousy going on right now. At least I haven’t seen it.

“We have juniors who are yielding to a couple freshmen and a sophomore.”

Joyner knew entering the season that his team would be smaller than it was last year and would need to pick up the tempo and get a group rebounding effort to compete.

“We knew all year the lack of size, in our conference, is really going to kill us,” Joyner said. “The tallest guy is 6-2, 6-3. That really hurt us in the tournament. We have to rebound by committee and box out by committee.”

A mainstay has been senior Deshone McClure, representing most of the Red Devils’ returning experience.

But even McClure, averaging close to 16 points a game, has had to make adjustments while teamed with younger players, Joyner said.

“He knows he has a young team and he’s trying to do everything he can do to pull them together,” Joyner said.

“He was forcing the ball and making some bad decisions because he was trying to do it all himself. Now he’s accepted the fact that these guys are young and we have to keep encouraging them and keep coaching.”

Encouraging and coaching have turned out to be two of McClure’s more noteworthy skills this year, Joyner said.

“He’s really grasped the fact that we’re going to be young and make a lot of mistakes,” Joyner said.

Joyner noted a recent game in which McClure was on the bench for a breather and was the first one up to congratulate his teammates during a timeout. A college recruiter on a recent visit noted the same thing, Joyner said.

“He wasn’t talking about the 26 points he scored,” Joyner said.

If there have been any surprises so far, Joyner said, they have been mostly pleasant ones. Everything else has gone about how he expected.

“Par for the course baby,” he said. “It is like I was a fortune teller or, what do you call it? A soothsayer. It’s been exactly the way we mapped it out and said it was going to be.”