SPORTS >> Panthers, Wildcats savoring down time
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
The Cabot Panthers and Harding Academy Wildcats will sit out the first round of the state high school football playoffs thanks to their conference championships.
Cabot (9-1) beat Russellville 26-24 in the season finale at Cyclone Stadium to repeat as the 7A-Central champion with a 6-1 record and earn a first-round bye. North Little Rock also finished 6-1 in conference, but the Panthers beat the Charging Wildcats earlier this season.
Cabot’s only loss was to Bryant, 35-7, over two weeks ago, but North Little Rock knocked off Bryant the following week.
“Two weeks ago I didn’t know if we could beat anybody,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said of the stunning loss on the muddy ground at Bryant. “But I know one thing, we’re on the turf so we don’t have to worry about the mud anymore. If we play three more games it will all be on turf. Cabot, Cabot and War Memorial.”
Led by standout junior quarterback Seth Keese, Harding Academy beat Rose Bud 46-20 to remain perfect and return to the top of the 2-3A Conference under second-year coach Roddy Mote. The Wildcats reached the playoffs in Mote’s first year last season but fell short of a conference championship, something to which Harding Academy fans had become accustomed under former coach Tommy Shoemaker.
Cabot will play its second-round playoff game at Panther Stadium on Nov. 20 against the winner of the Fayetteville-Conway game. Harding Academy awaits its home matchup against the winner of the first-round Yellville-Summit-Cave City game.
“We’re going to catch our breath and see what happens,” Malham said.
The time off probably comes at a good time for Cabot.
Senior fullback Michael James has nursed injuries all year. James, who rushed for close to 3,000 yards combined in his sophomore and junior seasons, injured his shoulder in pre-season practice, and continues to rebound from a high-ankle sprain.
He limped through his 174-yard, two-touchdown performance at Russellville last Thursday.
Spencer Smith had been the workhorse in Cabot’s dead T with James out, but Smith is suffering from a bad ankle as well.
“We’ve got some bad ankles. We’ve got two or three,” Malham said of the Russellville game. “You watch James limp on and Spencer Smith limp off.
“I was rotating them at fullback and both of them looked like they couldn’t run a lick the way they’re limping. So this will give us a couple weeks.”
James gained over 1,300 yards last year and was expected to have another big season, as well as making his varsity debut as a linebacker after he last played the position in ninth grade.
James has shown flashes of his ability in limited time this year, as he did against the Cyclones, and Malham said James is probably as healthy as he is going to get and he is confident he will get the senior’s best effort, even when banged up.
“It does help to have two good ones,” Malham said of James and Smith.
Cabot earned a bye last year then suffered a 21-17, first-round loss when Springdale Har-Ber intercepted a pass in the end zone with 53 seconds left at Panther Stadium.
“Hopefully we’ll get ready to play,” Malham said. “Last year was a disappointment. We thought we let Har-Ber slip by us last year. But that’s football; you’ve only got one chance when you get in the playoffs.”
Har-Ber is on Cabot’s side of the bracket again this season, along with Springdale and Russellville.
But first there is the matter of playing the Conway-Fayetteville winner, Malham said.
“We’ll sit back and see who’s going to come to our place and if we win we get to play at our place again,” Malham said. “We set ourselves up. Of course, we’ve got to produce now but it’s a good feeling right now anyway.”