Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

SPORTS >>Har-Ber expects challenges

Leader sports editor

The Cabot Panthers will make their first appearance in the state football playoffs in three seasons when they travel to Springdale to take on Har-Ber High School, the West co-champion and No. 1 seed. Har-Ber, named for local philanthropists Harvey and Bernice Jones, tied with Bentonville for the league title, but won the top seed by virtue of beating the Tigers head-to-head.

There is little about the Cabot Panthers that the Wildcats are familiar with, but the game against Bentonville might have been their most significant tell-tale.

Har-Ber beat Bentonville, the West’s most prolific running team, 24-21, but still gave up a lot of yards on the ground. That fact, and the fact that Cabot’s running style is not very similar to Bentonville’s, concerns head Wildcat Chris Wood.

“It’s a big challenge for us to prepare for that offense,” Wood said. “It’s difficult to simulate. As hard as we try and as hard as the scout team tries to simulate it, you can’t really do it like Cabot is going to do it. Most teams we play are in a two-point on the line. They’re lining up foot-to-foot, coming off low; it’s just almost impossible to simulate.”

Conversely, Cabot has seen some spread this season, but likely not as efficiently as Har-Ber runs it.

Wood quarterbacked the spread for one of Gus Malzahn’s state championship teams at Shiloh Christian, and no one has really stopped the Wildcat offense this season. Their two losses were their season opener against Lawton, Okla., and week seven 16-12 loss to Fort Smith Northside. Northside did the best defensive job of the Wildcats, and did it mostly with defensive speed.

Cabot doesn’t have the same kind of speed, so head Panther Mike Malham and defensive coordinator Randall Black have the task of finding other ways to stop the Wildcats.

Mimicking its own efforts in the second and third quarters against Russellville would help the Panthers. Mimicking their effort in the middle quarters would spell a long night.

Cabot gave up just seven of Russellville’s 42 points on the second and third quarters, and 35 in the first and fourth combined.

“I thought the defense played well in spots,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said of the Russellville game. “Really after the first quarter they came back when turnovers came into play. That’s what we’re really going to have to be careful about. We can’t afford to turn the ball over.”

The offense has never looked better than it did last week. Cabot gained 525 yards, mostly on the ground. A number not even Malham ever expected.

“That kind of shocked me,” Malham said. “If we can move the ball and not put it on the ground, we’ve got a chance. The second half against Bryant is really the only time I remember us not moving it at all. The rest of the time, we either turned it over, or fumbled it and lost yardage, or got a penalty. We were always doing something to stop ourselves. That one half, though, we didn’t move it. Hopefully we’ll be able to move it and keep it away from them.”

The injury report from Cabot is getting a little better. Tight end Blake Carter was expected to miss last week’s game, but was able to suit up and caught a 24-yard touchdown pass.

Ethan Coffee came back at linebacker. Sophomore Alex Bray played well in his place. He was hurt and missed the second half last week, but is expected to play this week. His replacement in the second half last week, sophomore Jared Maxwell, played well also.

Sophomore defensive back Joe Bryant could play this week. That would be a big help, but as of Monday, Malham wasn’t counting on it.

“It’s getting a little better,” Malham said. “If Bryant comes back we’ll be able to get Neumann off safety and back at linebacker. Right now though we’re going to have to move forward like he’s not going to be there.”

One of the biggest concers for Malham is Har-Ber’s experience. It’s a senior-dominated team that has been playing together since the school’s inception three seasons ago. This is their first year to make the playoffs, but teams full of seniors are always dangerous.

“They’ve played together for three years now,” Malham said. “They work pretty well together. Any time you’re the number one team in the west, you’re supposed to be the best there is. You come out of there No. 1, you’ve got to be pretty good.”
While Malham lauded Har-Ber’s strengths, Wood reciprocated the praise. The head Wildcat wouldn’t even acknowledge that his team is the favorite.

“It’s a one-and-four matchup but it’s one of those deals where I don’t think we’re the favorite in this kind of situation,” Wood said. “We won a conference championship, but that’s out the door now. Cabot’s a tradition-rich program. We’re trying to create tradition but I think from that standpoint, I’d have to give the advantage to Cabot.”