SPORTS >> Second-half rally lifts Cabot to title
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
RUSSELLVILLE — The season didn’t start the way Michael James planned, but it could end up the way he hoped.
Cabot’s senior fullback rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers held off Russellville 26-24 and clinched the 7A-Central Conference championship at Cyclone Stadium on Thursday night.
“It’s awesome man,” James said of this year’s title. “There’s nothing worse than being a senior and sitting out, not playing. I’m pumped up being back.”
James has dealt with injuries that kept him from significant action until midway through the season. But with his help Thursday the Panthers overcame the Cyclones in the second half, locked up a first-round bye in the playoffs and possible home-field advantage throughout.
“That was a heck of a ballgame,” Cabot coach Mike Malham said. “If you just wanted to watch a good ballgame, back and forth, they were ahead, we came back. A lot of momentum shifts.”
James rushed for more than 1,300 yards last year and was expected to have a banner 2009. But he missed the first two games with a shoulder injury, and then he suffered an ankle sprain that forced him to miss more action and still causes him pain.
But it hasn’t been enough to keep James off the field in the late going. As part of a group of seniors who have never won a playoff game, James is looking forward to this year’s return trip.
Cabot won the 7A-Central last year then, after its bye, was eliminated at home by Springdale Har-Ber.
“State championship, I want it bad. We’re going for it,” James said.
Russellville led 17-11 at halftime after Cyclones kicker Zach Hocker set a new single-season state record with his 18th field goal, a 48-yarder, in the closing seconds.
Cabot opened the second half with an 80-yard drive that included a 43-yard run up the middle by James and Spencer Smith’s 1-yard scoring run for the 18-17 lead with 8:41 left in the third quarter.
Russellville was forced to punt when a crowd of Panthers led by T.J. Bertrand sacked Barrett Hughes, and Cabot went 64 yards and scored on James’ 4-yard run. Malham then chose to go for two, and James scored on a pitchout to make it a two-score lead, 26-17, with 10:30 left in the game.
Russellville cut the lead when Hughes passed 10 yards to DeMarius Neal to make it 26-24 with 4:30 to go.
Cabot was forced to punt, but Panthers defensive lineman Jay Turpin hurried Hughes into an incompletion to bring up fourth an 7 at the Cyclones’ 31. Bertrand then turned in another sack, for a 9-yard loss, to get the ball back for the Panthers with 2:04 remaining.
“It was all the plays we didn’t make in the first half,” Malham said of the defensive stops.
From there, Cabot ran out the clock, with James getting three straight carries and the final first down that allowed quarterback Seth Bloomberg to take a knee in the victory formation.
“We started him at linebacker and then I had him at fullback,” Malham said of James. “When you have him for three years, I just have so much confidence in him.”
Malham was waiting on Friday night’s results to see who Cabot’s second-round opponent will be and was looking forward to the weekend off.
“It’s just nice to win a conference championship and say ‘Hey I don’t have to work next week, or I don’t have to work this weekend anyway,’ ” Malham said. “And then we’ll sit back and see who’s going to come to our place.”
Cabot pulled within 14-11 on Logan Spry’s 40-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in the first half.
But Spry skied the ensuing kickoff down the middle instead of to the sideline, where Malham wanted it, and Andrew Tryon returned it 42 yards to the Panthers’ 37.
A 6-yard completion and a spike to stop the clock with 5 seconds left brought on Hocker, who made his 48-yard attempt with room to spare to set his field goal record.
Spry ended a promising first possession by Russellville when he intercepted receiver Averian Collins’ pass on a reverse to Cole Smith in the end zone.
Cabot went 80 yards on 15 plays and scored when James went off tackle on a 4-yard run with 2:24 left in the first quarter.
“He’s as good as he’s going to get so there’s no reason to hold him back any longer,” Malham said of James. “It’s do or die now.”
James had long gains of 10 and 11 yards on the drive, and Cabot ran him in from the 4 on the conversion after a Russellville encroachment penalty halved the distance.
Russellville responded with an 80-yard drive of its own and scored when Hughes passed 7 yards to Neal to pull the Cyclones within 8-7 with 8:24 left.
Hughes was 7 for 8 on the drive with long completions of 11 and 16 yards, plus the 17-yarder to Neal to bring up first and goal at the 7.
Cabot fumbled and recovered to stall its next drive and Russellville went 67 yards to score on Jacob Sparks’ 1-yard run and take the 14-8 lead with 2:54 left in the half. Hughes had 13-yard completions to Sparks and Averian Collins — who also had a tackle-breaking carry of 22 yards — and 11 yards to Smith.
Two officiating calls went Cabot’s way on the Panthers’ final possession of the half.
Cabot was forced to punt and Russellville was called for a block below the knees, with the yardage measured from the spot of the foul instead of the line of scrimmage to give the Panthers a first down at the Cyclones’ 36.
On second and 8 at the 23, Bloomberg attempted a pass to Joe Bryant in the right flat, but the pass was behind Bryant and looked like a fumbled lateral recovered by Russellville’s Logan Pruitt.
The officials called it an incomplete pass to give the Panthers new life, and a play later, Spry kicked his 40-yarder.