Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SPORTS >> New home should fit loyal fans, vice versa

Leader sports editor

I had the pleasure recently of visiting the past and glimpsing the future of Cabot High School basketball.

On Saturday, I moseyed up my street and took in the Panthers’ doubleheader sweep of Conway, which included a 10-point triumph by the girls and the boys’ rollicking, 51-47 upset fueled by the late efforts of guard Darin Jones.

The victories, in games that had to be rescheduled because of recent winter weather, came in the crowded confines of Cabot’s home gym, whose days as the Panthers’ headquarters are now numbered.

A noisy crowd led by the student section — whose members were decked out in alarming pink ensembles for breast cancer awareness night — charged the weekend atmosphere.

It seemed Conway fans didn’t like the students’ key jingling, the chorus of “hey, hey goodbye” and a few other taunts as they headed out the door, and some Wampus Cat supporters lingered to return verbal fire before they were hustled away.

It was the kind of night that recently led Cabot boys coach Jerry Bridges to reflect on how much he will miss playing in the Panthers’ old band box, slated to be replaced by an on-campus facility sometime next fall.

In North Little Rock’s spacious, modern gym on Monday, the Panthers lost yet another weather-related makeup game 61-56 to the Charging Wildcats while the girls were trounced 60-32.

This time I didn’t see the venue having as much impact.

North Little Rock fans lounging among the blue, chair-backed seats had plenty of elbow room and others could lean comfortably on the railing in the upper level concourse that circles the brightly lighted floor.

North Little Rock students did their best to bring the noise, and the loyal Cabot students who made the trip and set up camp in one end zone tried to return fire. But the sounds sometimes seemed swallowed up in the half-empty building.

Now, I’m not saying NLR’s gym is too big or their fans don’t turn out. A recent girls game drew a capacity crowd to watch the Lady Charging Wildcats extend their winning streak, which reached 54 in the victory over Cabot.

And I’m not saying Cabot is making a mistake leaving its old gym to other uses, like junior high games during the weekends.

But what I am saying is that in basketball, cozy is usually better. And Cabot may have figured that out as it moves forward on its project bid at close to $13 million.

The facility includes a cafeteria, amphitheatre and HPER building. The gym itself, Cabot athletic director Johnny White said, is an attempt to combine the best of all possible worlds.

The seating capacity will increase from the 1,600 or so the current gym holds to a “tad under” 2,400, White said.

In planning the structure, Cabot consulted with Conway and North Little Rock to use the elements the schools felt they had gotten right and to jettison the things they felt they had gotten wrong.

The new gym will include dressing rooms for the basketball teams, volleyball and visitors, as well as coach’s offices for each sport. Bleachers will be included in the end zones because, as White noted, the students stand anyway, and chair-back seats will be in the courtside stands.

Most important, given the refreshing enthusiasm of the students and the noise they provide, is the vertical angle of the stands, which not only allows for more storage space underneath but also should make fans in even the upper levels feel like they are on top of the action.

In other words, the Panthers ought to feel at home the first time they take the floor.

“You’ll know they’re there,” White said of the fans.