Saturday, February 23, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot finally set to open new facility

Leader sportswriter

The Cabot High School baseball and softball teams have a new place to call home. With the completed construction of new baseball and softball fields, as well as a spacious new indoor facility, the Panthers and Lady Panthers are opening the 2013 season in style.

“It’s a new complex, and we’re really excited about our indoor facility,” said Cabot baseball coach Jay Fitch. “We kind of have a place we can call our own now, and don’t have to worry about getting run out.”

According to Cabot superintendent Tony Thurman, the cost of the complex is in the $1-million range. The district is waiting on prices for additional parking areas. They are also considering cover for the bleachers.

The new indoor facility measures about 120 feet in length according to Fitch, and will have four 75-to-80 foot batting cages. It’s fully turfed, which allows the teams to run through their daily practice routines even in inclement weather.

“It’s really nice man, we’re proud of it,” Fitch said. “It’s fully turfed, and the cages are set to where we can lower the frames up and down and put the nets on top of the frame, and then raise those back up. So we really have an all-turf indoor facility to practice defense, especially infield.”

The new baseball field itself has similar design characteristics to the high school baseball field in Searcy according to Fitch. The old Cabot baseball and softball complex had small locker rooms about 40-to-50 yards away from the fields. In the new complex, the dugouts are connected to the locker rooms located along the third base line.

Also connected is the coach’s office, as well as restrooms. So going back and forth won’t be an issue for team members or coaches. A new storage building is also close by for all necessary equipment.

The length of the field has shortened from the old one according to Fitch. The old Cabot baseball field benefited the pitchers as centerfield peaked around 390 feet, which as a result, few home runs were hit.

“We ended up shortening it a bit,” Fitch said. “Our old field was so, so big. The dimensions were huge. We just never had a home run hit out of there. We basically shortened it up all-around by about 20 feet. So we brought centerfield in to around 370 feet.”

Twenty feet may sound like a lot, but with the changes to modern aluminum bats teams use at the high school and collegiate levels, hitting one out of the Cabot high school field will still be a tough feat to accomplish.

“It’s still going to take a big hit to get one out,” Fitch said. “The thing is, the way they’ve changed the bats, the bats the kids use are real comparable to wooden bats now as far as the bat-exit-speed ratio. So the balls simply don’t travel like they used to. I may just shorten the field up even more. I still think it’ll be pretty hard to hit one out of there.”

It should be a different season in 2013 for the Panther baseball team, who failed to make the class 7A state tournament in 2012. It was only the third time in Fitch’s 14 seasons at Cabot that his team missed the state tournament. Only three players graduated from last year’s squad, so the Panthers will have up to seven returning starters this season, many of which are now juniors.

To the 2012 Panthers’ credit, they lost a lot of close games that could’ve easily ended in their favor. But with several players back from last year’s team, Fitch hopes this group can learn from those close games, and end up on the winning side more times than not this time around.

“We really kind of have everybody back,” Fitch said. “It’s still a pretty young group. At times we had five sophomores and some ninth graders starting. That’s a tough combination when you play in the 7A Central. As far as wins and losses it wasn’t good, but we lost a bunch of close games.

“It’s like we were in nearly every game, we just didn’t have enough firepower to pull some of those close games off. This year they’ve all got another year under their belt. Hopefully we’ll win those close games this year. The kids have been working hard since August, and we expect good things this year.”

As far as conference play goes, the Panthers’ move to the 7A/6A East means they don’t have to deal with traditional powerhouse Bryant, the defending class 7A state champion. Bryant moved to the 7A/6A South Conference this season. Conway, another traditionally tough team, remained in the 7A/6A Central Conference.

Even though Cabot won’t have to see those teams in conference play, the 7A/6A East is no slouch conference. Jonesboro, Searcy, Little Rock Central and Mountain Home are rich in tradition as well, and will all be threats for the conference title.

The Panthers played at Lonoke in a benefit game on Tuesday, and ended up beating the Jackrabbits, last year’s class 4A state runner-up, 17-2. Cabot opens its regular season Tuesday at Little Rock Hall, and will play its first home game at the new complex on Wednesday against Little Rock Parkview at 5 p.m.