Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SPORTS>>Panthers aren’t taking 0-3 Wampus Cats for granted

Leader sportswriter

The opening week of the 7A Central Conference features some pretty interesting matchups, but none as intriguing as the Cabot – Conway game. The Panthers will make the journey this Friday to John McConnell Stadium to take on the Wampus Cats in Faulkner County.

Cabot has a two-game home stand against expected league contenders Catholic and North Little Rock beginning next week, but head coach Mike Malham said he just wants to get by a 0-3 Conway team that he feels has been underestimated up to this point.

“Everybody is 0-0 right now,” Malham said. “And they’ve played tougher competition than we have so far. They have taken on some heavyweights. Conway and Cabot is always a slugfest. They’re playing a bunch of young kids, and they have had all this time to improve. After playing teams like Bentonville and Southside, they’re not going to be in awe of us, that’s for sure.”

Conway was blown out by the Tigers to start the season, but has since played close games to both the Rebels in Week 2 and in a 15-14 loss to Benton last Friday.

Cabot brings a 3-0 record into Friday’s conference opener. A big win over rival Jacksonville to start the season faded into concern when the Panthers’ running game looked rather dicey against 5A contender Sylvan Hills. They got their offense going last week in a big win over Hall, but new problems presented themselves on the other side of the ball, in the early going in particular.
“We’ve played pretty well — we’ve had our lapses, but overall it’s been all right,” Malham said. “We had an offensive lapse against Sylvan Hills, but then they almost beat North Little Rock, so maybe Sylvan Hills is a little better than people thought they were going tobe. And then this past Friday, we had a defensive lapse against Hall there in the first quarter. These games are only going to get tougher from here, the more we get into the conference.”

Since losing senior tight end Les McGregor in the opening week, the Panthers have held off the injury bug pretty well. Last year was a trying one in terms of injuries, and while Malham said he’s happy to see people staying healthy, that there’s no fail-safe method to avoiding hurt personnel.

“Injuries are just a part of football — you can’t worry about what you can’t control,” Malham said. “There’s just nothing you can do about it. It happens to other people too. Everybody is pretty much in the same boat when it comes to that. Now, last year was one of those deals when an unusually high number of people went out, but you’re always going to lose one or two along the way in any season.”

This time last year, the buzz around then-sophomore sensation running back Michael James was just beginning, but his numbers are down from last season. Malham said it’s not a matter of James, now a junior, not playing hard, but more support in the offensive backfield this season.

“We spread it around quite a bit in the Hall game,” Malham said. “We had a pretty decent balance. They’re all doing a good job. In certain situations, our halfbacks get more carries depending on the situation. You just have to pick your spots.”

Wesley Sowell ended up with the biggest rushing numbers for Cabot last week with 7 carries for 81 yards, while Chris Bayles had 11 carries for 79 yards. James had the most carries with 13, gaining 77 yards on the night.

Conway coach Kenny Smith has never had a 0-3 start in his previous 17 years as head Wampus Cat. It has been a rocky start for his young squad which features three seniors on offense and four on defense, but Smith, now in his 18th season at Conway, is not yet ready to hit the panic button.

“These kids have been tested every way imaginable, there’s no doubt about that,” Smith said. “We’ve had a rough schedule up to this point, but we’ve shown improvement every week. We’ve given up fewer points and scored more from one week to the next.”

The Wampus Cats will have to battle a bigger Cabot line, but Smith said familiarity with the Panthers will help offset that disparity.

“Our kids are just used to it,” Smith said. “We’ve had great games with Cabot for the last 17 years. Our kids play against them from the seventh grade on, so we’re used to that style.”

Smith said he will rely on battle-tested senior fullback Ivan Mendoza (5-9, 195) to combat some of the physicality at the Cabot defensive line.

The Wampus Cats and Panthers will kick off the conference season this Friday at 7 p.m.