Tuesday, August 13, 2013

SPORT STORY>>Red Devils, Panthers look strong this season

Leader sports editor

Cabot and Jacksonville once again open the football season against each other when they meet at Panther Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 3. But with the Backyard Brawl being put on the backburner, at least for a time, the two teams could put on a show in what might be the series finale.

Both teams are expected to have strong offenses, so points could be plentiful and the entertainment value high. But it’s not a given. Jacksonville usually has, and is known for, strong defenses. Years of now head coach Rick Russell being the defensive coordinator is a big reason for that. Cabot won last year’s game 28-7, but most of those points were short-field touchdowns after Jacksonville turnovers. Cabot’s defense yielded almost nothing in that game, and the Panthers should be better on that side of the ball this year.

The final matchup between the two teams will be one in which both schools believe they have one of their most talented groups in a while.

Jacksonville is loaded at the skill positions, but is short on linemen, and even shorter than expected now that two prospective starters have fallen short of academic eligibility.

Cabot is in somewhat of the same boat. Two returning offensive line starters are no longer with the team, but the Panthers have more depth than Jacksonville.

And they should have more depth, and that’s a big reason why this game probably won’t happen again, at least until Jacksonville finally begins operating as its own school district and merges with much of North Pulaski’s drawing area.

As it stands, the latest enrollment figures show Cabot as more than three times larger than Jacksonville with 2,258 students to JHS’s 680. Cabot typically has between 85 and 100 players on the first day of practice while Jacksonville had 45 this year.

Even if you add North Pulaski’s entire current enrollment of 609 to Jacksonville’s, there’s still a gap of nearly 1,000 students, and Jacksonville’s new district almost certainly won’t include all of NPHS’s current drawing area.

The current numbers are almost never conducive to a competitive football game. Jacksonville has managed to keep it competitive in most years, but has only managed two wins in the last 15 years, and none since 2006.

Neither the Panthers nor Red Devils predicate their seasons on what happens in a week-one game with such a numbers disparity, Jacksonville even less than Cabot.

“We’re going to compete and we’re going in there to win the game, but if we don’t, it doesn’t make or break our season,” Jacksonville coach Rick Russell said during the first week of practice.

Cabot may be the heavy favorite, but the game only provides a potentially negative beginning to the season. Everyone expects the state’s third largest school to beat the 46th largest, so a win gains them little credit. But a loss, no matter how competitive Jacksonville is supposed to be in their 5A division, would be considered a sign of a disappointing season to come for the Panthers.

The game has only existed this long for monetary reasons. It’s a good gate with good concession sales, and it’s good for advertisers and generating advertisement dollars. But it serves no other purpose anymore. Some may say money is a good reason to continue the game, but that’s not what scholastic athletics is supposed to be about.

Beyond game one, Cabot and Jacksonville both have a rare chance to run the table.

Jacksonville may not be an underdog in any other game this season, but will have to find the kind of consistency that has eluded it the past several years to pull off the feat.

Cabot will need one big upset to go undefeated, but will be on at least equal footing with all its opponents except for the Pulaski County All-Stars, otherwise known as the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats.