Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Strong field fills Cabot’s tourney

Leader sportswriter

The second annual Cabot Pre-Holiday Basketball Tournament will tip off Monday at Panther Arena and will last through Dec. 8.

Cabot’s girls and boys won last year’s tournament, which were the first series of games played at Panther Arena, and both teams are looking forward to defending their respective titles. Eight teams make up each bracket, and the majority of the teams from last year’s tournament are back this year.

Like last year’s tournament, each team will play three games with a winner’s and consolation bracket. The final games, which will be played Dec. 8, will decide who places where in the tournament.

Four games will be played Monday. In the girls’ bracket, Beebe will play Harding Academy at 5:30 p.m., and Searcy will play Watson Chapel in the final game of the evening at 8:30. The boys will take to the floor for the first game of the tournament as Benton will play Paragould at 4 p.m. The second boys’ game will be between Hot Springs Lakeside and Searcy at 7 p.m.

Cabot’s teams won’t play until Tuesday. The Panthers will hit the floor at 7 p.m. against Watson Chapel, and the Lady Panthers will play the final game of the night against Pulaski Academy at 8:30.

Cabot, Watson Chapel, Little Rock Catholic, Vilonia, Benton, Paragould, Lakeside and Searcy fill the boys’ bracket. Each scenario in the tournament presents a different kind of challenge according to Cabot coach Jerry Bridges, and if the Panthers want to repeat as tournament champs, Bridges knows his team will have to work for it.

“Those were our first games in the new arena,” Bridges said of last year’s tournament, “and it was a fun time. We’re trying to defend the title, and we feel like we have our work cut out. We have other games right now that we’re worried about before then, but we feel like it gives us a good feel for the tournament.”

When asked who some of the stronger teams are in the boys’ bracket, Bridges said each team has a shot, but said Benton could catch some teams by surprise.

“I tell you, I think Benton is going to be a very good team this year that people are going to discover as the season gets under way, because they have about everybody back,” Bridges said. “I’d probably say Benton has to be a favorite (in the tournament) this year, but I think everybody has a shot at it too. I feel like it’s going to be a good field. If we can win it that tells me we’re becoming a good basketball team.”

Cabot, Pulaski Academy, Beebe, Harding Academy, Searcy, Watson Chapel, Vilonia and Nettleton make up the girls’ bracket. The Lady Panthers, who went on to win the class 7A state championship last season, have already won a tournament championship this season.

On Nov. 17, the Lady Panthers defeated North Little Rock by 24 points in the Heavenly Hoops Classic championship game at Mount St. Mary Academy. Cabot started the season 3-0, but fell hard to Conway last week, losing 90-64 on the road.

Seniors Elliot Taylor and Jaylin Bridges are returning starters from last year’s state championship team, and although several Lady Panthers have stepped in and played well this season, assistant coach Charles Ruple wants to see more players step in and contribute.

“Right now our depth is a place that we really need to improve on,” Ruple said. “Against Conway, I don’t know that they had more fire-power, but they definitely had more man-power. We played about six, maybe seven in that first half. (Conway) ended up playing about 10 or 12 girls.”

Although Cabot is the most recent team to win a state championship in the girls’ bracket, others have strong basketball traditions. Watson Chapel has won three state titles in the past five years, and Vilonia won the class 5A championship in 2009.

Pulaski Academy is expected to have another strong season. Searcy and Nettleton have improved since last year, and Beebe could surprise some teams in the tournament. Harding Academy is another team expected to have a good year as the Lady Wildcats return just about every player on their roster.

Like Bridges said of the boys’ portion of the bracket, Ruple believes any of the eight teams in the girls’ bracket could finish at the top once it’s all said and done.

“I don’t think I’d be out of line at all to say really any one of these teams could win the tournament,” Ruple said. “We’re just going to have to play well, score well. We’re going to have a little bit of an advantage because we’re playing at home and that always makes a difference. These first four games we’ve played, we have not played at home. Whoever comes out of this tournament as the winner should be quite a bit better.”