Tuesday, September 17, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Conway bringing respect

Leader sports editor

The Cabot Panthers host the Conway Wampus Cats in a big rivalry showdown Friday night at Panther Stadium. The two teams enter the game with unblemished records after two weeks of play, though Conway has an advantage in strength of schedule.

Already a rivalry that both teams circle on the calendar, this year’s game could be a matchup of the best units each has fielded in the last few years. Conway coach Clint Ashcraft was hesitant to say this was his best team in a while, but was quick to make that assessment of Cabot.

“Without a doubt this is the best Cabot team we’ve seen since at least 2009,” said Ashcraft. The 2009 Panthers gave up a long touchdown pass in the waning seconds of the game that cost them a trip to the state championship. The head Wampus Cat believes this year’s Cabot team could be better than that one.

“The first thing that jumps out at you is their size,” Ashcraft said. “They’re bigger than they have been. What you notice later on is the speed they have on both sides of the ball. Their secondary is the fastest I’ve ever seen at Cabot. On offense, they’re breaking big runs and separating. This is easily the best one since ’09.”

Cabot coach Mike Malham wasn’t as hesitant to heap praise on Conway.

“They’re good,” said Malham. “Their offensive line is big and their skill players are fast. They’ve put away two pretty good opponents and nobody has slowed them down yet. We’ll find out this week if we’re any good or not, and if we can compete with the top level teams. If we can compete with Conway we can compete with anybody.”

The Wampus Cats beat Bryant 24-7 in week one, and handled Jonesboro 33-14 last week in Craighead County, though the head Cat wasn’t entirely pleased with week two’s performance.

“I didn’t think we played well at all in the second half at Jonesboro,” Ashcraft said. “Overall though, I’m pretty pleased with how we’re playing. We’ve got our toughest test so far in front of us though, so we have to keep getting better.”

In Conway, Cabot faces its third spread offense of the season, while Conway has to change gears in preparation for the Panthers’ dead-T formation.

“I think that’s one of the reasons he sticks with that offense,” Ashcraft said. “It’s an advantage nowadays. You get one week to prepare for it and you can’t really prepare for it the way they do it. You pretty much just have to play a series or two against it to really understand what you’re dealing with. They might score early, but I don’t think you can panic. You just got to relax because this is a game where you’re going to have to keep fighting and keep grinding away at it.”

Conway features a slew of talented and capable playmakers. They run, throw and catch behind an offensive line that averages 270 pounds and has performed very well so far this year.

“I’ve been really proud so far of our offensive line,” Ashcraft said. “They’ve given us plenty of time. The tight ends are playing well. I’m also pleased with how our secondary has defended against the two spread teams we’ve played so far. But this is a different approach this week.”