SPORTS >> Playoff bracket matches Cabot, Conway again
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
Cabot fans sick of seeing Springdale Har-Ber in the first game of the playoffs should be happy with this week’s opponent.
Cabot coach Mike Malham may be a little worried, but fans should be happy.
After being knocked out of the postseason two consecutive years by Har-Ber, Cabot — the 7A-Central Conference champion with a first-round bye — has drawn a rematch with regular-season opponent Conway.
The Panthers play host to the Wampus Cats, who beat Fayetteville 45-42 in the first round of the playoffs, at Panther Stadium on Friday night.
“We played them about seven weeks ago and they are definitely much better,” Malham said of Conway. “They hadn’t played but about four seniors this season so all those young kids that have been playing, they had a whole year. They had 11 games.”
Cabot beat Conway 38-21 at Panther Stadium on Sept. 25.
“We’re going to have to play awful well,” Malham said. “They’re not the same team we played seven weeks ago and we struggled with them in that game. That wasn’t an easy game.”
In the regular season matchup, Cabot took a 31-7 lead in the second half but Conway, in hurry-up mode most of the last two quarters, scored the final two touchdowns to leave Malham wiping sweat off his brow and saying he was glad the Panthers had caught the Wampus Cats early in the season and not later down the line.
Later comes Friday.
“They weren’t favored,” Malham said of Conway’s victory over Fayetteville. “But when you’re playing a five and a four seed you can’t get any closer. The four seed obviously had the home-field advantage, if there is an advantage there, but both teams moved the ball pretty good.”
The key to the Wampus Cats’ offense is versatile quarterback Xavier Acklin, who rushed for 173 yards and one touchdown and passed for 140 yards and another score in the regular season game at Cabot.
“They spread it out, go two-back shotgun. They’re in the shotgun all the time,” Malham said. “They do a lot of that wildcat stuff. They’ll go empty. He’ll throw or run.
“Acklin, if he can’t find anything he’ll start scrambling and that may be when he’s most dangerous. The last two weeks he’s had over 400 yards of offense.”
Cabot earned the most important share of the 7A-Central with a 26-24 victory at Russellville on Nov. 5. The Panthers’ only regular-season loss was to Bryant on Oct. 23, but North Little Rock beat Bryant the following week, which left Cabot holding all the essential tiebreakers.
The first-round bye was valuable to the Panthers primarily because fullback/linebacker Michael James and fullback Spencer Smith have been battling ankle injuries and could be seen limping on and off the field as they replaced each other at Russellville.
James also missed the first part of the year with a shoulder injury he suffered in preseason practice.
“Hopefully we got some ankles in shape and some shoulders and, hopefully, we’ll be ready to play,” Malham said.
The Panthers took Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday off during their bye week and hit the weight room on Monday and Friday. Last week featured more of a normal practice schedule, except Cabot had Friday free.
Malham said he didn’t expect any rustiness issues after the week off.
“Timing,” he said. “You don’t want to go stale but we practiced as much as we did in a regular game week last week. In fact, probably longer than in a regular game week. I don’t think there’s going to be a problem there. Hopefully the rest helped us.”
Malham shouldn’t have to worry about his players, especially his seniors who haven’t won a playoff game in two previous postseason trips, being focused.
“If we can count the bye as a win we can say we won one,” Malham said.
“We won two, last year and this year. They’ve been to the playoffs but they haven’t come up with a playoff victory. Hopefully they understand this is their last go around.”