By Todd traub
Leader sports editor
Cabot’s hoped for home game didn’t come about as Fort Smith Southside knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs with a 28-7 victory at Fort Smith on Saturday.
The game was a rematch of the 2000 AAAAA state championship game won by Cabot, and though the Panthers didn’t win the latest matchup it was something of a credit to the program that they even got that far into this year’s playoffs.
Cabot, hoping to win and play a semifinal game at home, ended the regular season with five key players out because of injuries while others, like kicker/defensive back Logan Spry, were battling nagging pains.
Running back Spencer Smith, wearing a flak jacket to help protect his injured shoulder, and tight end Jesse Roberts returned for Friday’s game, and it looked as if running back Jeremy Berry, who suited up at halftime, was going to return to action as well.
But none of that helped the Panthers as Fort Smith raced to a 21-0 halftime lead behind quarterback Hunter Whorton and running back Julius Jones as the Rebels took advantage of some Cabot miscues and bad breaks.
Southside led 7-0 when a bad pitch stalled one Cabot drive and then punter Max Carroll fielded a low snap on one knee and was ruled down at the Panthers’ 27, setting up the Rebels’ next quick score on a run by Whorton on the first play.
The Panthers showed signs of life in the second half, scoring on Mason James’ 24-yard run with 4:58 left in the third quarter.
But quarterback/return man Bryson Morris dropped a punt and Fort Smith Southside recovered and went on to score, and the Panthers didn’t have enough time left to overcome the 21-point deficit.
The Panthers’ season opening roster featured 23 seniors, and they picked up another in the second part of the year when Will Hidalgo joined as the kicker after Spry was unable to kick because of an abdominal injury and sophomore Jesus Marquez hit a slump.
Key departures on offense include Smith, tight end Rod Quinn, Berry, and running backs Andre Ausejo and Mason James.
Pivotal defensive players who will graduate include Spry, defensive backs Greg Phelps and Ethan Covington, lineman Jason Sled and linebacker Riley Hawkins.
Quarterback Zach Craig, who was lost to a knee injury in the regular season finale, will be back as a senior next season.
Cabot opened the year with a 28-14 victory over non-conference rival Jacksonville at War Memorial Stadium, survived a shootout at Pulaski Academy then lost to its perennial playoff nemesis, Springdale Har-Ber, in Week 3.
The Panthers then endured their worst defeat, 41-7, in the 7A/6A-Central opener at Conway. Cabot then began to clean up its mistakes, cutting down the penalties and turnovers, to start a six-game winning streak with a victory over Little Rock Catholic.
Cabot, Conway and Bryant ended in a three-way tie, but Conway had the lthe tie breakers to take the top seed to the state playoffs.
Cabot did clinch a share of the conference title and beat Rogers Heritage to open the playoffs.