Leader Blues

Friday, January 22, 2010

SPORTS >> Swift says conference is toughest in the state

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

There have been no surprises for former Lonoke coach Wes Swift at his new job in his new conference.

Unfortunately.

Swift left after eight years with Lonoke, of the 2-4A Conference, to take over at Jonesboro, of the fiercely competitive 6A-East.

In a return trip to central Arkansas with his new team Tuesday, Swift got a taste of that competitiveness as Jacksonville raced to a 59-44 victory at the Devils Den.

“Night in and night out, if you’re not ready, this is what happens,” Swift said. “And tonight they enforced their will on us and we didn’t have an answer for it and that’s what happens. When they come to our place, I expect it to be a different story.”

Swift began his career at Gillett in 1994 then took over at Hughes in 1997. He won 86 games in four seasons and in 2001 the Blue Devils went 35-1 and won the Class AAA state championship.

Swift originally left Hughes for Shiloh Christian but ended up taking the Lonoke job. Swift’s Jackrabbits went 30-5 and wonthe 4A state championship in 2008, were the state runners up in 2003, and made four semifinal appearances and eight trips to the quarterfinals.

But coaches like challenges, and Swift is no different. So he moved on to Jonesboro after last season.

“It’s just an unbelievable basketball tradition up there,” Swift said. “Northeast Arkansas really loves their basketball, just the support. The small schools up there love it, the big schools love it, so that was a big draw.

“Plus the fact that it was in the best conference in the state. If you want to challenge yourself just get in the 6A-East.”

Swift replaced long-time Jonesboro coach Barry Pruitt, who in 28 years won 521 games, two state and nine conference championships. Pruitt has continued to be a friend to the Hurricane, Swift said.

“He’s done a great job. He’s been a great help to me since I’ve gotten there,” Swift said.

Swift was reluctant to make comparisons between his style and Pruitt’s — Swift didn’t want anyone to think he would criticize the former coach.

Swift did say, with his current roster, there are things that must be fixed. He was unhappy Tuesday with continued, erratic play from his youthful guards and defensive breakdowns, especially against Jacksonville senior standout Deshone McClure, who scored 16 points.

“They win; they’re in contention almost every year,” Swift said of the Jonesboro tradition. “But honestly, what I’ve seen from the guys that are here right now, we’ve got to get mentally and we’ve got to get physically tougher. That’s what I see.

“I see the other guys that we’re playing right now really being stronger from a physical standpoint and I also see them being stronger mentally than our guys, and we’ve got to turn that around.”

The loss Tuesday dropped the Hurricane to 8-9, 1-3 and seventh in the 6A-East.

But the Hurricane has plenty of chances to stay in contention. It was playing host to Little Rock Parkview on Friday, then looking at trips to Searcy and Hall, with the rematch against Jacksonville scheduled at Jonesboro later in the season.

Swift recalled a recent conversation with Jacksonville athletic director, basketball assistant and former head coach Jerry Wilson in which they discussed how even the teams in the bottom half of the conference, which includes Jonesboro and Jacksonville right now, are tough.

“We’ve either got to step up or we’re going to get left behind,” Swift said.

Swift has tried to find the fine line between challenging his players and encouraging them. But Swift expects the Hurricane to make some noise before the season is over.

“I’m constantly challenging them but yet we can’t beat down either,” Swift said. “We have to keep the motivation part going too.

It’s going to happen. These kids want to win.”