Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

SPORTS >>Cabot set for first Conway visit since ’96

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

This week’s matchup between Cabot and Conway will be a game between longtime rivals. While the game will be between familiar foes, it won’t be in a familiar place, at least not for the visiting Wampus Cats. Cabot and Conway have faced each other every season for the last 13 years, but have not played at Panther Stadium since 1996. The Wampus Cats walked away with a triple-overtime playoff victory in that last meeting in Cabot. Since then, the two teams always met in week one of the season in some sort of bowl or classic game.

They’ve played at War Memorial, Estes Stadium in Conway, and the past three years at Conway High School. The Wampus Cats have gotten the best of the Panthers the past two years. Already a heated rival, they aren’t expecting a warm welcome when they grace Panther Stadium for the first time in 10 years this Friday.

“I’m sure it’ll be a treat for us,” Conway coach Kenny Smith said. “They get us coming in there when they’re really on a roll. I think it will be nice though because of that wonderful facility they have there now.”

Smith coached at Cabot for three years, and has fond feelings for the hometown of his rival, but is quick to point out it’s a friendly rivalry.

“I have the utmost respect for Cabot,” Smith said. “(Athletic director) Johnny White is one of my very best friends. I love the support of the community. Cabot and Conway almost mirror each other in many respects. And I’m one person that’s been fortunate enough to live and work in both places.”

For his fondness for the city, it stops when game time starts. He’s quick to point out he wants badly to beat Cabot.

“I’m the kind of guy, I can turn on the weather channel, and if Cabot is 80 degrees, I want Conway to show 81,” Smith said.
When it comes to game preparation, Smith feels his team has its work cut out for it this week. He believes this is Cabot’s best team in several years, and says that he thinks Cabot’s coach thinks so too.

“I can tell Michael (Cabot coach Mike Malham) really likes this team,” Smith said. “I can tell by the play calling and some of the things he’s doing that he really has a lot of confidence in that bunch. This is probably the best offensive line he’s had in some time. I’m very impressed with that group. The backs are always the same. They’ve never had a back that didn’t run hard and that’s no different this year. They’re a north and south football team, and they’ve scored a lot points doing that this year.”

Malham does have confidence in the team, and has been pleased with its ability to move the ball and score, but didn’t like one thing he saw last week against Searcy. An old, nasty pest reared its head again in the first half of that game, fumbles.
“We do pretty good when we don’t put the ball on the ground,” Malham said. “We’d better not do that this week or it’ll hurt us a lot worse than it did.”

Malham didn’t believe that Conway’s outing against Bentonville was as bad as the score indicated. He has been impressed with the Wampus Cat offense in all three games.

“They’ve moved the ball on everybody they’ve played,” Malham said. “They had some mistakes and Bentonville got all the breaks in that one. We’ve got to get ready to play because this is definitely going to be the best team we’ve seen so far.”

Conway lost some key players before the season ever got started. It led to a rough opener, but things have steadily improved since a big opening loss to Bentonville.

The Wampus Cats played defending champion Fort Smith Southside to within one point, then beat Benton last week.

One of the players Conway lost was an All-State fullback, which is the feature position in Conway’s offense. The departed players was replaced by Ivan Mendoza, who has shown progress, and recorded his first 100-yard game last week.

“Ivan has done a great job for us since stepping into that role,” Smith said. “Obviously nobody likes to lose an all-state football player, but we’ve got kids stepping up and playing well.”

Lester Robinson is carrying the ball frequently from the wing back position, and returning All-State player Isaiah Jackson is back. Jackson did the most damage to the Panthers last year, and Malham remembers it well.

“He made us look bad last year,” Malham said.

Smith expects Cabot to key on him this week, but knows Cabot won’t sell out to stop him.

“He’s a threat to break it all the time,” Smith said. “He’s just that kind of player. What I like about this team though, is that they’ve had to step up and show something about themselves, and I think they have. I think they’ve gotten to the point that you can’t just say you’re going to stop Isaiah and you’ll stop Conway. But defensive coordinators aren’t stupid, and Cabot has an outstanding one. They see what all we have and I expect ‘em to be well-prepared like they always are.”

Cabot has stopped its opponents so far this year. The Panthers have given up just one touchdown and eight total points in three games. The offense has scored exactly 100 points so far, but has played in two mercy-rule shortened games by virtue of reaching 35 points so quickly.

Conway has shown improvement in dealing with big offensive lines, as evidenced by the different outcomes of the games against Bentonville and Southside.

Though Smith says there’s something a little different about playing Cabot.

“Against Bentonville, our interior people were getting wiped out,” Smith said. “Against Southside they did a nice job.

Southside was huge and we held our own. We didn’t get a win, but it was a much better effort. Against Cabot, you have got to be the aggressor. You can’t sit back and let them come to you or you’re beat because they’re aggressive. They are hard-nosed, aggressive kids and you got to meet ‘em. If you sit back and wait for them, they’ve done run over you.” That’s more like Southside plays, and we did a better job against them. We’d better keep improving too. They (the Panthers) have scored a lot and pitched two shutouts, so we’d better be ready.”

Aggression, though, is something that’s only effective if the ball doesn’t come loose. Taking care of the ball and playing smart defense will be the key for Cabot.

“If we don’t put the ball on the ground, and don’t give up the big pass over the top, I think we’ll give ourselves a chance to win,” Malham said. “If they’re going to beat us, make ‘em beat us. Let’s not try to give it away.”