Don’t talk about rivalries to Mark Whatley and Mike Malham.
The Jacksonville and Cabot coaches just want to open the season with a win.
The Red Devils and Panthers begin the season on Tuesday at Jacksonville’s Jan Crow Stadium with a game so rich in history and tradition that it has now been dubbed the Backyard Brawl, complete with a traveling trophy and pre-game press conference.
But Malham is not one for pomp and circumstance when it comes to getting the season off on the right foot.
“Everybody wants to start out 1-0,” Malham said. “After the first week, 50 percent of the teams will be 1-0 and the other 50 will be 0-1, and obviously both teams want to get that early momentum going before they get into conference play.”
Malham has insisted since the spring that defense will be the key to success for the Panthers in 2008, and as the season opener nears, he’s still saying it.
“We basically want to keep the ball and wind time off the clock,” Malham said. “We feel like our defense is pretty good. We have a lot of really good personnel back, and a lot of team speed on defense.
“We’ve got experience all the way around. We just have to get them ready. I think we’ll be ready, but I know that they’re going to be ready too.”
The Panthers are coming off a successful scrimmage with a talented Lake Hamilton team. Malham’s only concern stems from an unusually high number of penalties at the line during the scrimmage. He’s hoping it is something that doesn’t reoccur when they face the Devils.
“We’ve got to get those things corrected,” Malham said. “We don’t need to help our opponents out. If they’re going to win, let’s make them beat us, we don’t need to give it to them.”
Jacksonville did not have a scrimmage game, but did have a good showing during the Devil Red-White game on Saturday.
For Whatley, it’s the uniqueness of the Cabot team that concerns him the most. After nearly a month of hitting each other, he hopes the Red Devils can adjust defensively to the Cabot Dead-T offense.
“The biggest thing is, you can’t simulate how it will be in the Cabot game, especially with their offense,” Whatley said. “It’s going to be a different tempo, a different atmosphere. The hardest thing to get across to these kids is the level of intensity that’s going to be there. It’s hard to compare Cabot to anyone.”
Though the Panthers are considered state title contenders, Whatley said they are definitely beatable.
“We certainly hope we can win,” Whatley said. “It’s going to take unselfish team defense. We can’t miss a single tackle and expect to control their offense. When we get an opportunity on offense, we have to take advantage of it. We want to keep their offense on the sideline as often as we can.”
After weeks of banging on each other, the Red Devils are more than ready to get the season under way.
“They’re ready,” Whatley said of his young squad. “They’ve beat and beat on each other until they’re sick of it. It’s time to get this season started, and Cabot is our first hurdle.”
The Red Devils and Panthers will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Visiting Cabot fans can park in the old Wal-Mart parking lot.
Tickets for the Jacksonville-Cabot game may be purchased in advance from Cabot High School, the First Arkansas Bank of Cabot and the First Arkansas Bank main branch in Jacksonville.