SPORTS >> Cabot wrangling Russellville for crown
Leader sports editor
After nine games, a statewide television debut, one stunning loss and one flood, the Cabot Panthers are just about where they hoped to be this time of year.
A season that began on the small screen against Jacksonville, in the state’s first commercial television broadcast of a high school game, wraps up at Russellville on Thursday with the 7A-Central championship on the line.
“We put ourselves in position to do what we needed to going into the last game of the regular season with a chance to win the conference,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said. “All the marbles are out there Thursday night. Hopefully we’ll play like we did last week and not the week before against Bryant.”
Bryant’s 35-7 victory on the muddy ground at Hornet Stadium was the only blot on Cabot’s season. Steady rains made the field a mess, but the weather got even worse last Friday, with flash flooding in the central Arkansas area.
This time, however, Cabot was back on its pristine artificial surface and made Van Buren pay in a 55-14 victory. Matt Bayles rushed for 191 yards and four touchdowns as the Panthers rolled up 520 total yards, all on the ground.
Bryant, meanwhile, was losing to North Little Rock — Cabot’s victim in Week 6 — and the outcome set Thursday’s deciding matchup between the Panthers and Cyclones.
“When you get down to the last game and you’re still in the thick of it, that’s not a bad season right there,” Malham said.
“Obviously, if we can win Thursday it will be a real good season.”
A victory over Russellville would give Cabot (8-1, 5-1) a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the 7A playoffs.
A loss, with the various tiebreakers, would drop Cabot to fourth and take away the bye, but give the Panthers at least a first-round home game.
“Of course we hope to do even more,” Malham said.
Last week’s game was more than just an exercise in releasing frustration against a down-on-its-luck opponent. If the Panthers had taken the Pointers lightly and fallen in an upset, this week’s championship game scenario would be off the books.
“If they didn’t figure it out against Bryant there’s not a lot that I can say,” Malham said. “They need to find out they’re not invincible and have got to be ready to play every week. When they are, we’re not too bad.”
Russellville (7-1-1, 5-1) suffered its lone loss to North Little Rock and tied Fayetteville in a non-conference game. The Cyclones, behind senior quarterback Barrett Hughes, are outscoring opponents an average 11.6 points a game and allowing an average 12.7.
“They’re pretty well balanced,” Malham said. “Like Bryant, they do a lot of formations. They can run or throw, of course Bryant did more running against us — I don’t blame them, it was worth it — but it’s about 50-50.”
Malham said at this point in the season the run-oriented Panthers, who thrive in the dead T offense, should be prepared to throw the ball a little more like they did in victories against Little Rock Catholic and North Little Rock.
“We’ve got to be a little bit more two dimensional,” Malham said. “They’ve seen what we’ve been doing all year.”
But win or lose Thursday, for Cabot, it’s all going to start on the ground.
“Hopefully we can move it on the ground,” Malham said. “If we can’t move it on the ground, it’s going to be a long night for us, that’s for sure.”
Cabot was able to rest its offense and many of its defensive players in the second half last week and should be rested for Thursday’s pivotal game.
“It didn’t hurt to get a little rest. We got on top of them pretty quick and things went right for us,” Malham said.
The Panthers should be at full strength this week, with the exception of absent running back Hunter Sales, who has pins in his wrist from an injury suffered against Little Rock Central in Week 7 and needs at least a couple of weeks to return, if he can make it back at all.
But Cabot was able to welcome injured senior fullback/linebacker Michael James back to the lineup in the North Little Rock game.Plus the Panthers have had plenty of depth in the backfield for most of the season.
“We’ve been fortunate enough there,” Malham said.