SPORTS >> Falcons set for takeoff
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
A losing streak isn’t how North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper wanted to get the attention of his players.
He just hopes the Falcons are listening now.
“If losing three of four is not a wakeup call, there’s not one,” Cooper said. “You’ve got the phone off the hook.”
The Falcons, 9-4, begin 5A-Southeast Conference play at Mills on Friday night.
“We started the season pretty good and over the last couple of weeks we kind of lost focus,” Cooper said. “We lost focus and intensity and going into the conference that’s not a good thing.”
After finishing as the state runner-up last year and returning most of that team, North Pulaski charged out to an 8-0 start that included victories over defending 6A champion and crosstown rival Jacksonville.
But something looked fishy to Cooper. He didn’t see the levels of motivation and leadership he expected, and his players were too blinded by their early success to notice, Cooper said.
“Actually around the first of December I started noticing it,” Cooper said. “But we were on an eight-game winning streak and it’s hard to tell guys they’re not playing with the intensity level they need to be playing with when they’re on an eight-game winning streak. It kind of went in one ear and out the other.
“The problem with not playing well, it takes some losses to make them say ‘Maybe Coach is right.’ We’ve got the losses now.”
Most distressing to Cooper is the nature of those losses.
There was an overtime setback to 7A Conway in the Wampus Cat Classic at Conway. Against Memphis power Raleigh-Egypt, the Falcons trailed by 19 points before rallying for the lead, then losing on free throws down the stretch.
“It was the way we began the game,” Cooper said. “We came out with no enthusiasm, knowing we’re playing one of the top teams in Memphis and to come out flat like that.”
North Pulaski lost a 16-point lead in a loss against Poplar Bluff, Mo., and was without certain players who were suspended for missing practice.
“At this stage of the game we shouldn’t be having that,” Cooper said.
Finally, Forrest City, a team North Pulaski beat by 12 points at Conway, won the rematch on a buzzer-beater.
“We started 8-0 now we’re 9-4,” Cooper said. “Obviously, if it hasn’t become clear to you now then we’ll have some major problems.”
Aaron Cooper, averaging between 18-19 points a game and Kyron Ware, averaging 15, have been the Falcons’ most consistent scorers.
“I was hoping that we’d be playing more motivated than we have over the last couple of weeks,” Raymond Cooper said. “I haven’t gotten a whole lot of leadership from some of the guys that are back from last year. We’re not playing with the same desire and the same hunger that we played with last year. And that’s a big concern.”
Cooper said a better overall output is vital if North Pulaski wants to survive its conference schedule.
“Little Rock McClellan may possibly be playing as well as anybody in the state in any classification,” Cooper said of the Lions, 11-2 with losses to last year’s 6A runner-up Little Rock Hall and Memphis’ Craigmont. “They are playing extremely good basketball. They are playing very hungry, very dangerous.
“Mills has got some talent and they are a team you can’t overlook. Sylvan Hills is young, they could get on a roll because they’re young and they’re very talented.”
Cooper was concerned enough about his team’s recent play that he wasn’t going to give in to Monday’s snowy weather without a fight.
Rather than let his players get away with the snow day that canceled classes and extended the holiday break, Cooper was huddling with his assistants and trying to plan a practice.
“We need to get into the gym because we’ve got some things we need to work on, mainly our defensive intensity level,” Cooper said. “I can’t wait to practice.”