Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SPORTS>>Panthers face familiar foe

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

This year’s second round 7A state playoff opponent for Cabot is a repeat of last year’s first-round foe. Springdale Har-Ber will visit Panther Stadium on Friday to decide who will make it to the semifinals.

The Wildcats (9-2), now in only their third year of existence, beat the Panthers (9-1), 35-14, in the first round last year on their way to the state finals where they suffered a 28-7 loss to 7A West foe Fayetteville.

They advanced to this year’s second round with a 37-21 win over North Little Rock on Friday.

Cabot sat out the first week of the bracket after receiving a bye for being the conference champions of the 7A Central. The Panthers took a thrilling 12-7 win two weeks ago against Russellville to claim their first crown in five years.

Wildcats coach Chris Wood was happy to get away with a win over a physical NLR team, but expects this week’s game to be equally physical.

“I think that the Central conference in general is just a real physical league,” Wood said. “Especially with their defenses. We know going in that it’s probably going to be a physical game. We got a taste of that last week, and we know it’s going to be a big task.”

The Wildcats combated that physicality with 332 yards of rushing offense, highlighted by a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance by running back Derek Brinker.

It reveals a depth that may have been somewhat hidden during the regular season by senior quarterback Zach Faught’s impressive numbers. Faught has completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,514 yards and 20 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.

“We’re hoping we can do some things with our passing game,” Wood said. “I know their defense is improved. We had some big runs early last week which is what led to some of those final numbers, but we’ve been doing our best to take whatever’s there.”

Defensively, Wood is concerned with Cabot’s ability to play keep-away with its offense. The Panthers grinded out 9:39 of clock to secure the league title against Russellville two weeks ago. He said it wasn’t a matter of knowing whether or not it’s coming, but hoping for a turnover or other mistake along the way.

“I don’t know that you could ever hold Cabot to a three-and-out,” Wood said. “No one has done it all year. Their quarterback (Seth Bloomberg) does too good of a job with their key reads. Hopefully something will go wrong before they get to the end zone. That was a big key for us last year when we beat them, and I believe it will come down to that again.”

Jacob Bunderick has led Har-Ber’s defense in 2008 with 82 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions.

“They’re solid all the way around,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said of Har-Ber. “Right now, they’re as good as anybody out of the west. They outran the North Little Rock secondary twice, and we didn’t outrun anybody. They’re the real deal.”

Malham also remembers the turnovers that led to the Panthers’ early exit from the playoffs a year ago.

His best running back, Michael James, made a lot of headlines last season as a sophomore with his rushing abilities, but also made mistakes typical of a young player. He doesn’t have quite the yardage as a junior, but has more touchdowns and has made fewer mistakes.

“Hopefully we’ll play better than what we played last year,” he said. “We gave it away twice inside their 20, and they took one of them the other way, so we helped them out a lot last year. We are much better defensively this year. Last year, we had so many people out with injuries, and this year, we have everybody, so it makes a big difference.”

Malham wasn’t sure if the week off was a good thing or a bad thing. He was just glad to still be talking football this late in the year.

“It’s Week 12, and we’re still playing,” Malham said. “So we didn’t do too bad. We got a little rest for our guys, and they’re ready to come back. It should be a pretty good game. It’s going to be a battle.”