When North Little Rock Coach Johnny Rice took over the Charging Wildcat last year, he had one goal he wanted to accomplish. That was for North Little Rock to not only make the state tournament but to also be a presence.

After winning the 7A state championship last year, North Little Rock (23-2) and Rice have accomplished that objective as it is a favorite to defend its state title. The Wildcats’ two losses have come to 6A schools in Little Rock Parkview and Jonesboro. Actually, North Little Rock and Jonesboro shared the 6A/7A-East conference title with 13-1 marks. But, the big picture is to capture another state championship. That journey begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Bryant-West Memphis at Conway High School.

"I put pressure on myself more than anybody else," Rice said. "Since we won it, the expectations are different than last year and everybody looks at this differently."

One thing Rice stressed is the Wildcats are a different team than last year and have a different look. Even though only five players returned from last year’s squad, Rice was able to incorporate several newcomers and transfers with the players from last year and develop a winning combination.

"Even though it’s different, we still have guys with experience," Rice said. "Some of the move-ins also came from teams with state experience."

North Little Rock ended the regular season last Friday with an 83-54 victory over Little Rock Central. In that contest, senior guard Jawan Eldridge led the Wildcats with 18 points. While he has done it before, Eldridge hasn’t been the leading scorer lately. What North Little Rock has is several guys who can score.

Because the 6A/7A-East is comprised of teams who play several different styles, Rice feels the Wildcats are ready for whatever scenarios they see at the state tournament. The goal is to take one game at a time. Since all state tournaments were pushed back to today, the only bad thing is by the time North Little Rock plays Friday, it will be a week since it played. However, Rice is O.K. with that since all the other teams are affected the same way.