Leader Blues

Monday, November 23, 2009

SPORTS >> Panthers seniors put first-game playoff curse to rest

Cabot’s Spencer Neumann hauls in a 41-yard touchdown pass in the first half.


Leader sports editor

A year ago, Spencer Neumann and Michael James watched helplessly as the Cabot Panthers’ playoff run ended with an end-zone interception by Springdale Har-Ber in the final minute, knocking the Panthers out of the postseason in their first game. That was a year ago. On Friday, Neumann and James helped make sure the Panthers didn’t meet the same fate in a 38-7 victory over Conway at Panther Stadium. “Last year was a big disappointment to these guys,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said. “We thought we had that game won and we let it slip away from us, so they hadn’t won a playoff game and of course this is what they wanted to do to win this one and get some momentum going.” James, Cabot’s fullback, rushed for 98 yards and two touchdowns and Neumann caught a touchdown pass on his first reception while breaking the Panthers’ all-time tackles record at linebacker. It all added up to the first playoff victory in three tries for this year’s Panthers senior class. “It’s very gratifying,” Neumann said. “This senior class, I think we’re pretty good, but we hadn’t won a playoff game until now so it feels awesome.” Friday’s game was a rematch of the regular season meeting with Conway that Cabot won 38-21 on Sept. 25. With help from James, who has missed early playing time with a shoulder injury and has battled an ankle injury late, the rematch was a bit more one-sided. “It’s awesome man,” James said of the seniors’ first playoff victory. “It’s the first game that we’ve won but it wasn’t just our seniors, our juniors, we’ve got a couple juniors on our O-line and our O-line picked it up tonight big time.”. James entered the night needing 195 yards to break the 7A career rushing record of 3,696 set by Fort Smith Southside’s Daniel McGee from 2006-08. While he didn’t get the record Friday, the good news for James and, Cabot, is he gets another week of the postseason to try. “I think the offense as a whole did awesome. I didn’t try to worry about that too much, get focused on the game or whatever,” James said. “I play another game I’ll get it for sure.” Neumann needed four tackles to break the school record of 307 held by Steven Owen and while official statistics weren’t readily available after the game, Neumann had enough tackles against Conway to at least unofficially claim the mark. “I’m sure he did. I wasn’t counting,” Malham said. “I think I did,” Neumann said. “It’s nice, something I can look back on but I only have one thing on my mind and that’s the next game.” Neumann stopped Conway’s Jemarkus Harmon for a 3-yard gain on a defensive series that led to a Wampus Cats punt and, eventually, James’ 12-yard touchdown run that made it 21-0. Neumann had two tackles on one series in the second half, including a stop on quarterback Xavier Acklin that brought up fourth and 5 and Acklin’s ensuing pass attempt that ended in senior Joe Bryant’s interception and 75-yard return for a score. The play set the final margin with 3:58 left in the third quarter. James rushed for a team-high 61 yards in the first half and scored on runs of 1 and 12 yards as the Panthers built a 24-7 halftime lead. “He got all the carries at fullback until right there at the end so hopefully if he has a good game next week maybe he can get that,” Malham said of James’ pursuit of the rushing record. “He didn’t break anything big and everything he ran was tough.” James’ first score capped Cabot’s 15-play, 58-yard first possession with 3:45 left in the first quarter. His second touchdown, on a 12-yard pitchout around the right end, made it 21-0 with 10: 24 left in the half. Neumann, an occasional back in Cabot’s offensive rotation, started as usual at strong side linebacker but came in at halfback during the Panthers’ second scoring drive after quarterback Seth Bloomberg kept for 1-yard gain, bringing up second and 9 at the Conway 41. Bloomberg immediately found Neumann wide open down the right side and Neumann went the rest of the way for a 41-yard touchdown play that made it 14-0 with 2:01 left in the first quarter. “We ran it against them last time,” Malham said. “Their safeties, they had nobody in center field and their safeties were playing over the top on the option so we just went behind that right down the seam and he was open.” “It was awesome. I haven’t scored a touchdown all year,” said Neumann, who caught a 2-yard pass later in the half and just missed a diving catch on the Panthers’ only failed possession of the first two quarters. “We just saw that safety, he was coming in real hard on the run and we knew we could slip out the halfback and he just put me in there for that,” Neumann said of the touchdown catch. Now that the Panthers have escaped the first round, and with a rematch with Har-Ber awaiting them next week, they have their eyes on something bigger than rushing totals or tackles records. “Right now we’re not caring about the records we’re just trying to get one step closer to a state championship,” Malham said. “Definitely. We’re here to win state and I think we showed that tonight,” James said.