SPORTS>>Playing for all the marbles
The winner will walk away with the 7A-Central Conference championship on Friday when Russellville visits Panther Stadium for the final game of the regular season. Cabot (8-1, 5-1 conf.) is coming off an easy win at Van Buren last week. The Cyclones (8-1, 5-1) suffered their first setback of the season last Friday in a stunning loss to Conway.
The Panther players and fans will enter the game with heavy hearts, after the unexpected death of senior team captain John Fortner early Saturday.
Last year’s game between the two teams at Russellville was not for the conference championonship, but still featured major drama. Cabot overcame a massive deficit to secure the No. 4 playoff seed on the final play of the game.
Panthers coach Mike Malham said he hopes the 10-plus months of preparation for a big payoff game like this won will pay dividends.
“The winner is the outright conference champ,” Malham said. “I hope the kids can stay focused as long and hard as they’ve worked toward this goal. We started this back in January with offseason, and they’ve put in a lot of hard work.
“I would hate to see all of that done for nothing. And plus, if we’re going to dedicate this game and our season to old John, we better be prepared to put forth our best effort.”
Last week’s game against the Pointers seemed over not long after the national anthem, with a number of Van Buren turnovers that put the Panthers up 35-0 at halftime. That allowed Cabot to clear its bench.
“It was one of those games where everything fell into place really quick,” Malham said. “The defense intercepted a pass and we scored in the first three minutes. That was a game where we were able to take advantages of opportunities. We didn’t take that whole team, we only took 54, but everybody got to play.”
The Cyclones’ dream season came to a halt last week when Conway snuck by with a last-second field goal to hand them their first loss of the year. Russellville wasn’t highly touted coming into the season, but all that changed with an eye-opening Week 3 win over Fayetteville that put them on the radar. The Cyclones’ win over Catholic two weeks ago put them atop the 7A-Central standings.
The Cylcones have struggled most of the season offensively and are getting it done with a veteran defense that is limiting opponents to nine points a game. They are not big, except for 330 pound nose guard Dwight Stewart, but are extremely quick.
Special teams have also carried Russellville this season. Blocked punts and kicks, along with a solid kicker in Zach Hocker, have helped the Cyclones overcome their offensive struggles.
Russellville has a junior quarterback and a pair of solid running backs in Kenneth Golden and fullback Tanner Keeling. The offensive line features a pair of dandy sophomores, including the brother of former Nashville standout lineman Matt Hall.
The Panthers got another solid performance from junior fullback Michael James last week. James started off the scoring for Cabot last Friday, and scored the last touchdown of the opening half with a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs.
He sits right at 1,000 yards for the season, down almost 700 yards from his breakout sophomore season. Malham said the drop in the team’s overall offensive production has led to a dip in James’ numbers, but improved defense has more than made up for it.
“He’s not on pace to have another season like he did last year,” Malham said. “I don’t know that our offense is quite as good as last year, but our defense is much better. It’s not coming as easy for him this year, but the defense is doing what it takes to keep us out in front once we score.”
Both teams will receive bye into the second round of the playoffs.