Friday, August 27, 2010

SPORTS>>Rich history backs battle

Leader sports editor

It is only the third “Backyard Brawl,” officially.

But the Cabot Panthers and Jacksonville Red Devils go way back. Way, way back.

The two schools separated by nine miles and one county line meet again Tuesday in the Arkansas High School Kickoff Classic at 7:30 p.m. in War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

“I’ve been associated with this rivalry for 33 years,” said Cabot rivalry for 33 years,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham, who began coaching as an assistant at Jacksonville in 1978 after he graduated Arkansas State.

In those days, Malham said, Jacksonville was the bigger school under coach Bill Reed and in 1978 was on its way to the second of Reed’s third state championships with the Red Devils. Malham said that didn’t seem to impress Cabot in that year’s non-conference matchup, though Jacksonville eventually prevailed.

“That little team at Cabot came over and gave us fits,” Malham said.

Malham, Cabot’s head coach since 1981, noted the rivalry goes back even further than the late 1970s. Before there was a statewide high school playoff system ,many rival schools played each other in the last game of the year on Thanksgiving.

“They came over, boy, the first half it was pretty tough; eventually we won it,” Malham said of the 1978 game. “From what I understood that was the first time Cabot and Jacksonville might have played in several years but in the old days it used to be the Thanksgiving game.”

“Oh yes. You bet,” Jacksonville coach Rick Russell said of the hard-fought games. “It kind of went back and forth the early years.”

The series continued for Malham’s first two years at Cabot when the Panthers and Red Devils were members of the conference that included Conway, Little Rock Central, Little Rock Catholic and Mills. The Red Devils won Reed’s third state championship in 1981.

“Mills was in there and that was back when Mills was pretty dang good with Jacksonville,” Malham said. “But Jacksonville won the state that year at 14-0. The only game Mills lost in the regular season was to Jacksonville, 7-6.”

During the four years the Cabot-Jacksonville series was on hiatus, Cabot won its first state title, in the old AAA classification, in 1983.

The teams reunited in the same conference in 1987 and have played each other ever since, though the game has been a non-conference matchup the past four years.

Cabot is in the 7A/6A-Central as a 7A team this year and Jacksonville is in the 7A/6A-East as a 6A team.

Cabot has established itself as a perennial playoff and state championship contender, playing for the AAAAA championship in 1999 and winning it in 2000. The Panthers fell on hard times with just one victory in 2005, but have steadily regained their status since, winning at least a share of the conference championship the past two years and reaching the state semifinals last season.

Jacksonville’s success has been spotty recently, though the Red Devils aren’t far removed from their seven-victory season and conference championship in 2006. Jacksonville won six games in 2008 before slipping to 2-8 last year.

Russell, though in his first year, is no stranger to the Jacksonville program. He joined the Red Devils as an assistant, coaching defensive ends, linebackers and tight ends, in 1995 and was only away from the program last year, when he was across town as North Pulaski’s head coach.

Cabot won the first two Backyard Brawls by a combined score of 76-21 and Russell said the shift in the balance of power is directly related to shifts in the city’s populations.

There was a time when Jacksonville had two junior high schools, and two teams, to feed into the varsity program. Now Jacksonville has one feeder school but two high schools competing for talent while thanks to its rapid growth Cabot has Junior High North and South to draw from.

“So it’s been kind of one-sided since then,” Russell said. “I think we won two times in those last 10 years. They’ve got it going.

They’ve got the athletes, the feeder schools going the right way.”


There are still tickets available for Backyard Brawl III, the season opener between Jacksonville and Cabot at War Memorial Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at the Jacksonville football fieldhouse until 10 a.m. today. They will be on sale at the
Jacksonville High School office until noon Monday.

For information or to purchase tickets call Jacksonville athletic director Jerry Wilson at (501) 425-7370.