Leader Blues

Friday, August 28, 2009

SPORTS >> Jacksonville, Cabot renew heated rivalry

Leader sportswriter

Lights, camera, brawl!

The rivalry between Cabot and Jacksonville is intense enough it was given its own title last year when it was dubbed the Backyard Brawl.

This year, the ante has been upped as Tuesday night’s season opener at Panther Stadium will be the first live televised high-school football game in the state of Arkansas.

Local news channel KARK-TV Channel 4 will broadcast the game live on its cable affiliate KARZ-TV Channel 42, with sports anchor Aaron Nolan and legendary newscaster Dave Woodman calling the play-by-play.

Red Devils coach Mark Whatley has more to be concerned about than bright lights, though, after a Tuesday night scrimmage that ended with mixed results.

A stout defense that contained top national running back prospect Michael Dyer of Little Rock Christian Academy was offset by an offense that had trouble converting first downs.

“Yeah, we’ve got concerns,” said Whatley. “We didn’t throw or catch the ball well at all. We had several chances close to the sticks and didn’t finish.”

Cabot fared a lot better in its scrimmage with Lake Hamilton.

“We were a little sharper on offense than what I was expecting,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham, now entering his 28th season.

“But with seven guys back on defense, it wasn’t quite as sharp. We gave up some pretty big plays.”

With a traveling trophy, community bragging rights and now the TV broadcast surrounding the game, the key for Whatley is getting his team to focus on the job at hand.

“You’ve got to have nerves to play football,” said Whatley. “The thing that concerns me is getting prepared to try and win the conference title and become a better football team with a tough defense and consistent offense.”

Malham said he is not overly concerned with the presence of TV cameras.

“Once the game gets going, that’s what they will all be focused on,” said Malham. “If anything, it might help them a little more with time outs, give them a chance to get a drink and regroup.

“I think the kids who haven’t played in a Friday night setting, although this one’s on a Tuesday night, will be more on their nerves than anything. They have to get used to playing under the lights in a big game.”

The Panthers will come in to Tuesday’s game with a lot more experience among their starters — Jacksonville lost almost all of its skill position starters to graduation — although they will be without the services of senior fullback Michael James, who lit up the Jacksonville defense for 171 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries in last year’s opener.

That accounted for almost half of Cabot’s 397 yards, all of which were gained on the ground on its way to a 41-15 blowout win.

Whatley hopes to avoid a repeat this year.

“There are two keys to that,” said Whatley. “The first thing is that offensively, we have to have our offense out there keeping their offense off the field. It’s a concern whether we’ll be able to move the ball enough to keep them off.

“The second thing is, defensively, first downs are huge. If they get four or five yards on first down, that means our backs are against the wall. They want to go three, three-and-a-half yards a play, so stopping them on first down is key.”

The Red Devils will be without senior receiver/defensive back Devin Featherston, who suffered a high-ankle sprain in a recent practice. Featherston was expected to contribute on both sides, but will now be out anywhere from two to eight weeks. The game will also be a test for sophomore starting defensive lineman Michael Thornabar, who will see his first varsity playing time against a physical Cabot offensive front.

Despite the minor setbacks, Whatley feels like his defense is ready.

The scrimmage jamboree at Sylvan Hills gave the Devils defense a look at some of the best offenses in the state.

“We were very pleased with the defense,” said Whatley. “I told them before we went out there that I could care less what the scoreboard said. We just wanted to be the most physical team out there, and the way our defense played, I thought we were. If we keep playing physical and keep the emotion and passion there, we’ll be okay.”