SPORTS >> Panther pair has postseason possibilities
Linebacker Spencer Neumann is near Cabot career tackles mark.
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
The second season has given a pair of Cabot Panthers a second chance to knock off some records.
Senior fullback Michael James is on pace to become the all-time leading rusher in 7A as Cabot plays host to Conway in the second round of the state playoffs at Panther Stadium on Friday night.
Cabot, with a share of the 7A-Central Conference championship, had a first-round bye while Conway beat Fayetteville 45-42 last week.
James has a solid chance to surpass Fort Smith Southside’s Daniel McGee, who had 3,696 career yards from 2006-08, but the record seemed in doubt earlier in the year as James missed significant action because of shoulder and ankle injuries. But with recent big games, like the 168-yard night he had in the 7A-Central clincher at Russellville, James is at 3,402 yards and needs 195 to surpass McGee.
“I know at the beginning of the season I had to get, like, 600 yards,” James said. “I missed most of the season so I don’t know.”
“He’s been pretty resilient,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said. “I can’t remember him being hurt the first two years, carrying as many times as he did. He just had some bad luck this year. But there’s no reason to hold him back now. It’s do or die. It was hard to keep him out when he was hurt.”
On the other side of the ball, senior linebacker Spencer Neumann is poised to break the school tackles record of 307 and is just four short of surpassing the mark held by Steve Owen.
“He’s the brains and the leader,” Malham said of Neumann. “He’s been doing it, calling signals. He’s a very smart kid, 3.8 student. He leads by example and calls the defense. I hate to play without him.”
Malham can be forgiven if he has gotten comfortable with the sight of Neumann at the strong side spot in Cabot’s 5-2 defense. Neumann had 100 tackles as a sophomore, 114 as a junior and posted a career-high 20 in last year’s second-round playoff game with Springdale Har-Ber.
“Next year will be kind of odd without him on the field,” Malham said. “He makes great plays. He makes plays the average linebacker doesn’t make.”
Malham had originally planned to use James and Neumann on both offense and defense, putting James at linebacker, where he hadn’t played since ninth-grade, and getting Neumann into the backfield rotation. It has worked out that way, more or less, in the long run now that James is as close to full strength as he is going to get.
Malham is planning to start James at weakside linebacker and fullback, but will give James all the rest he can. Spencer Smith, the workhorse at fullback this year with 998 yards, will start at halfback and slide into the fullback spot when James gets a break.
“Smith has done a great job and I’m glad we’ve got him,” Malham said. “He’s right at a 1,000-yard season.”
Malham was reminded of the 42 carries and 134 yards Smith gained while taking a beating in the 21-16 victory at Little Rock Catholic on Oct. 2. Smith averaged just 3.2 yards a carry against a Rockets defense geared against the run, but he had to endure the grind because James was out.
“It would have been nice to have them both that night to split up those carries,” Malham said.
Malham got his ideal situation in the Nov. 5 conference clincher at Russellville, when James started and gained a season-high yardage total while being spelled by Smith.
“I think he had about 26 carries and Smith had 13,” Malham said. “That position had close to 40 carries. James had about 170 yards and had a good night and hopefully he’ll have another good night this coming Friday.
“If the fullback position is not getting those yards it’s going to be a long night.”
Fortunately, Malham hasn’t had to worry about finding someone to fill in for Neumann, who has also helped out on special teams and been offered a scholarship by Central Arkansas.
“He’s just a good athlete. Starting for three years,” Malham said. “And he also plays some offense. He spot plays on offense here and there. In our spread set he’s one of our wideouts and he’s just another one of those backs that I need.”
Neumann could likely knock off the tackles record Friday night while James could come close to reaching 3,597 yards but will probably need one more game.
Of course playoff victories are what it’s all about, especially for a group of Panthers seniors that has never had postseason success.
Two years ago, Cabot lost in the first round of the playoffs at Har-Ber, then got a bye last year and lost again to Har-Ber in the second round at home.
“State championship man, I want it bad. We’re going for it,” James said. “Whoever we’re playing better watch out. We’re going to tear it up.”