Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

SPORTS >> Rivalry week kicks off with a few laughs

Leader sportswriter

It was a tailgate party coaches and players could actually attend.

With just over a week to go before the season-opening, “Backyard Brawl” between Cabot and Jacksonville, key figures from both teams gathered Monday for a cookout and press conference hosted by sponsor First Arkansas Bank and Trust in Cabot.

As Arkansas’ first televised high school football game, “The Backyard Brawl,” which takes place Tuesday at Cabot’s Panther Stadium, is guaranteed to make history, and history was on Cabot coach Mike Malham’s mind as he discussed the long-time rivalry with the Red Devils.

“It has swung both ways,” Malham said, noting the population shifts that have allowed Cabot to overtake Jacksonville in size and force the schools, who once played in the same conference, into different athletic classifications.

Cabot will play another year in the 7A-Central Conference and Jacksonville is in the smaller, 6A-East. However, the schools are slated to reunite after a round of reclassification next year.

In his press conference remarks, Malham recalled how Cabot and Jacksonville used to meet in the last week of the season when both played in the 5A-East during the 1990s.

“It always came down to Jacksonville and Cabot,” Malham said. “Half those games were for all the marbles.”

Cabot won the first Backyard Brawl 41-15 at Jacksonville’s Jan Crow Stadium last year, and Jacksonville Coach Mark Whatley doesn’t expect things to get easier on Cabot’s home turf.

“It’s always a tough battle when you come over here and play the University of Cabot,” Whatley said jokingly of Cabot’s size and modernized facilities. “But we’re excited about coming over and playing in a lovely place and playing on a lovely field with lovely fans. We’ll bring our lovely fans and our football team and we’ll get it on.”

Malham, who has been at Cabot since 1981, was a Jacksonville assistant when Whatley was a senior player for the Red Devils in the 1970s. The two recalled beating Cabot during that era, something only Whatley wants to see happen Tuesday.

“We’d definitely like to take this thing back,” Whatley said glancing at the traveling trophy won by Cabot last year. “That’s what we’re coming over here to do.”

The Jacksonville contingent, which included Whatley, athletic director Jerry Wilson and players Doug Sprouse, Nick Nowden and Jacob Hicks, arrived first on Monday.

“We like to call it a friendly rivalry,” Wilson said. “When we’re not playing them we’re rooting for them.”

The Cabot group included Malham, athletic director Johnny White, quarterback Seth Bloomberg, linebacker Spencer Neumann and members of the cheer and dance teams. They arrived in the midst of all the red and white looking out of place in a green school van, and Malham joked about the paint job as he and the players, wearing their school color, red and white jerseys, got out.

“A green van for Cabot,” Malham said.

Bloomberg carried the traveling trophy, which is crowned with a football. That seemed fitting, since, as the quarterback, Bloomberg will be handling the ball almost every offensive play and is one of just two returning starters on offense.

“We would like to keep it here but there are no guarantees,” Malham said of the trophy.

Despite the new faces, Cabot is considered the favorite to repeat as the 7A-Central champion, but Malham said the proof would have to come on the field.

“We haven’t proved a thing yet,” he said.

Whatley is entering his fifth season at Jacksonville and noted, for the first time, the Red Devils have enough talent that players shouldn’t have to play both ways.

“That’s going to make a big difference, we hope,” Whatley said.

As for the hoopla surrounding the historic television broadcast — the game will air on KARZ-TV Channel 42 — Whatley said that should only liven things up more.

“It’s got to be a plus,” Whatley said. “A Cabot-Jacksonville game, there’s electricity every year. It’s just going to add to it.”