Underdog Devils, hungry Bulldogs meet in annual rivalry

Underdog Devils, hungry Bulldogs meet in annual rivalry

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Underdog Devils, hungry Bulldogs meet in annual rivalry

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The rivalry is, according to historians, the fifth-oldest in Indiana high school basketball, dating back to ancient rules (no coaching was allowed except at halftime), antiquated accessories (open-ended nylon nets weren’t approved until 1912) and the presidency of William Howard Taft.

Times have changed, the sport has evolved. The rivalry has not. It’s the centerpiece game of the winter. In the 154 games played between New Albany and Jeffersonville since the series debut in 1909, the Bulldogs hold a slim two-win advantage.

The renewal on Friday night at Johnson Arena is not projected to be that close. The New Albany boys’ basketball team is 8-2 and ranked No.9 in Class 4-A, favored to win the Hoosier Hills Conference and sectional championships. Jeffersonville, battered by a brutal schedule, is 2-7, off to its worst start since the 1961-62 season.

Yet when records scream “Mismatch!” and blowouts are expected, funny things can happen. The underdogs rise to the occasion, the favorites forget to focus. Upsets are common. Coaches always dust off the “throw out the records” talking point.

“Anytime you have a rivalry like this, it’s very dangerous, especially going to their place, to be overconfident because of their record,” New Albany’s Jim Shannon said. “We’ve talked about that all week. We want to be ready to play. These games are never played on paper.”

“New Albany has the most talent and is having the best season so far, but you can throw that out the window when Friday night gets here,” Jeffersonville coach Matt Pait said. Both are sticking to the playbook.

This edition could produce drama. Jeffersonville, thumped by the top-ranked teams in Indiana (Southport) and Kentucky (Trinity), might be better than its mark indicates. New Albany, crushed by No.5 Evansville Reitz by 30 points last week, is vulnerable if it plans on making 28 turnovers again.

The Red Devils, whose two wins have come against foes (Seymour and Clarksville) with a combined three victories, have lost three straight. They won’t be phased by the sixth ranked foe they will see.

“We’ve gotten better as the season has gone on,” Pait said. “It’s just hard to tell because of the quality of our opponents. We’ve learned we have a lot to work on. But we’ve learned who is going to fight and play hard no matter what. It’s tough to find those positives, but it does prepare us for the sectional and later in the season. It’s good for us in that aspect.”

Ronnie Todd, who erupted for a career-high 34 points in the last outing against Louisville Manual, leads the Devils in scoring at 13.8 while Chad Hudson is contributing 11.0.

The Bulldogs bounced back from the humiliating loss at Reitz with a 64-42 win over Castle the next night. But they haven’t forgotten it yet.

“We got punched pretty good,” Shannon said. “We just didn’t respond to it. We didn’t realize how good they were and we didn’t take that punch.”

Jeffersonville doesn’t have the same firepower as Reitz, and its lack of size and experience will make it difficult to contain top New Albany scoring threats Davon Winburn and freshman Romeo Langford, plus handle all the other issues.

“With Romeo and Davon, they have two really good scorers,” Pait said. “They’re a very good team. They bring that experience and togetherness, which is something we’re trying to find in ourselves. We’ll have to find that extra gear.

“But it doesn’t matter who is ranked or what the records are. It’s always going to be a good game. Our kids will be up for it.”

New Albany is already 3-0 in the HHC has it chases its second straight league title. The Bulldogs have won 10 HHC crowns in the last 21 years and hold the league record with 16 championships.

Justin Sokeland can be followed on Twitter at @golfguru55.

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