Friday, January 07, 2011

SPORTS>>Panthers plunge into action

By Todd Traub
Leader sports editor

It may be a great way to start.

It may be like ripping off a Band-aid.

Either way, Cabot faced one of its toughest 7A-Central tests in the conference opener at defending state champion Conway on Friday night.

“It’s like I tell my kids, I’d just as soon play them earlier in the year than later,” Cabot coach Jerry Bridges said. “Man, they’re good. It will be good for us to measure where we are.”

Cabot might as well find out how it stacks up now, because Bridges doesn’t expect the rest of the conference schedule to be much easier.

“From here on it’s all 7A opponents and you better be ready to match it up and I think they will,” Bridges said of his players.

The Panthers have made three straight state-tournament appearances under Bridges but returned just two senior starters, 6-4 forward Kai Davis and 6-2 guard Darin Jones. Not surprisingly, the duo has helped shoulder the load in the early going.

“We’re getting a little better at becoming more consistent at scoring,” Bridges said. “Darin and Kai have really been doing good. Our younger kids, we’re finding that third scorer. It may not be the same kid in every game.”

Turnovers have been an issue, but Bridges hopes that will smooth out as his players continue to gain experience.

“We’ve got to get better still,” Bridges said. “This is more of an individual thing with some of them, but taking care of the ball and not being as nonchalant at times. That comes with a young team.”

Bridges said defense has been a strength in the early going for the Panthers, who reached the final of the Central Arkansas Christian Invitational in December before falling to Paragould.

“I think defensively there’s times we’ve played some real good defense,” Bridges said. “That’s why we were in a lot of games. We feel like there’s only one game we were completely taken out of and Jacksonville has proven they are pretty darn good.”

Jacksonville (11-0) will have its own problems in the tough 6A-East. Bridges saw plenty of headaches ahead in the 7A-Central, beginning with Conway, led by Colt Fason and Micah Delph.

“I still think they’re very solid,” Bridges said. “They’ve got an outstanding perimeter game with the Delph kid and they’ve got the big boy Fason, 6-6 or 6-7, and apparently he’s developed some type of perimeter game too because now he’s knocking down threes.”

Bridges ranked Van Buren, with five returning starters, alongside Conway as the toughest potential challenges.

“I think there’s going to be some very competitive games,” said Bridges, throwing Little Rock Catholic, coached by veteran Tim Ezzi, into the mix. “The thing about Catholic is he can play 10 and there’s not much difference. They’ve got 10 pretty good ballplayers and Tim does a great job at that.”

As if the conference race wasn’t tough enough, things get more complicated at the end of the season. Little Rock Hall and West Memphis are reclassified 7A but playing a 6A regular-season schedule, and they will be factored into the 7A-Central postseason seedings via a new, power-rating points system.

Bridges said he is no fan of the system and would prefer to see the high school basketball season settled by who beats whom straight up.

“You throw West Memphis and Hall into our rankings when they come out of their conference and I tell you those are the best two teams in their conference right now,” Bridges said. “I’m not going to worry about that formula. I’m not smart enough. I figure if you win games you have a chance.”