SPORTS >>Panthers hoping to step it up in playoffs
After a strong start to the season, the Cabot Lady Panthers have found their maiden voyage into the 7A-Central Conference a difficult one. Cabot coach Terri Williams says the task at hand now has been preparing for today’s state tournament qualifier game against West Conference No. 4 seed Fayetteville. The Lady Panthers will play the Lady Purple Dogs today at noon at tournament site Ft. Smith Southside.
A win in that game means a second-round date with Central league and defending state champion Russellville at noon Thursday.Fayetteville finished behind Fort Smith Northside, Bentonville and Southside in the 7A-West. The top two teams from each conference received a bye in the first round of the 12-team tournament.
In other first-round matchups, Central No. 3 seed Mount St. Mary’s plays Rogers, the No. 6 seed from the West. Central 4 North Little Rock faces West 5 Harber, and the final matchup pits Southside against LR Central. The winner of that game faced Conway. Northside awaits the NLR-Harber winner while Bentonville will meet either MSM or Rogers.
In a league filled with traditional powerhouses, the Lady Panthers struggled to make their mark early. A strong non-conference record is disguised in the overall record with eight conference losses. Williams says the strength of the Central Conference was not surprising to her. “We knew it would be tough coming into this conference,” Williams said. “You have Conway, Mt. Saint Mary’s, Russellville and North Little Rock, so there are four traditionally strong teams right there.”
Williams says that it wouldn’t matter if they were in this conference or the old 5A-East. She believes that the so-called ‘weak conference’ no longer exists in high-school volleyball. “It doesn’t matter what conference you’re in anymore,” Williams said. “Anywhere you go, you’re going to have to face strong teams. We pretty much traded one hard conference to go to another one. We had Jonesboro in our old conference, and they are every bit as tough as some of these teams.”
Cabot lost senior blocker Kim Carter in the Russellville tournament early in the season. Carter was the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense, and her absence made play at the net different for the remainder of the season. That gave the leadership res-ponsibilities to senior hitter Kelli Lowry. Although Lowry did not have the season hitting that she enjoyed during her junior year, Lowry proved herself to be one of the best servers in the state. Williams says that Lowry’s talents lie in more than just hitting; she is a solid overall player and will be a key to any success the Lady Panthers will have in the state tournament.
“Kelli has been a varsity player all three years,” Williams said. “She is not one-dimensional, she is a good all around player. She is fundamentally sound and has a really good arm swing. If she was just a little bit taller, she could dominate. But considering her height, I would say she has done very well.”
Leading hitter Katie Mantione, along with fellow junior Erika McCaghren, will also have to have an impact for the Lady Panthers to advance in state. The duo gives Cabot its biggest look up front in a long time. Sophomore Tori Hendrix has also showed great promise as a hitter this season.
The second round will be played out Thursday. The semifinal matches will be at 1 and 3 p.m. Friday.
Look for details of the first two rounds in Saturday’s edition of the Leader.