Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot’s tourney is evenly matched

Leader sportswriter

Even though inclement weather pushed it back a day, the third annual Cabot Pre-Holiday tournament tipped off last night, and both the hosts Panthers and Lady Panthers are looking for strong showings.

The Lady Panthers were scheduled to play at 7 p.m. last night against Greene County Tech, but the Lady Eagles were forced to drop out of the tournament because classes in their school district were canceled Tuesday.

The Panthers are scheduled to play Hot Springs Lakeside in their first-round game tonight at 7 p.m. Most of the teams participating in the tournament, in both brackets, have been here before.

Other than Cabot and Lakeside, the other six teams in the boys’ bracket are Paragould, Catholic, Benton, Vilonia, Searcy and Watson Chapel. In the girls’ bracket, the other six teams are Watson Chapel, Bryant, Harding Academy, Searcy, Benton and Vilonia.

Benton won the tournament last year in the boys’ division, and is considered, on paper at least, to be the team to beat this year. The fact the Saline County Panthers are once again considered the favorites comes as no surprise to Cabot coach Jerry Bridges, who saw all he wanted of Benton over the summer.

“I know this from this summer; Benton’s good,” said Bridges. “Benton’s good. I’m not just putting a bullseye on them, but to me they’re the best team in it. I hope playing at home will give us a chance, but we’ve got to get past Lakeside first on our side of the bracket.

“I don’t know a whole lot about them (Lakeside), but sometimes we play better that way if you want to know the truth.”

Paragould, who has everybody back from last year’s team, according to Bridges, is another team that could make noise in the tournament. In the boys’ division, every first-round game has the potential to be competitive.

Benton may have separated itself as far as talent and team chemistry, but every other team in that bracket could be considered close to the same in skill and progress level.

“I think Benton’s real good, and I feel like the rest of us are trying to find our identity,” Bridges said. “That’s really what I think it is. So hopefully after this tournament I’ll know a little more about my kids, because I feel like either way we go after the first night it’s going to be a good game the second night.”

The Lady Panthers were considered favorites to win the tournament for the second-consecutive time last year, but Vilonia surprised and left the last day of the tournament in 2012 with the title. Cabot is a lot younger than in years past, starting three sophomores and no seniors, but is talented enough to again be back in the championship mix this year.

According to Lady Panthers’ assistant coach Charles Ruple, there is no clear-cut favorite to win it all like there is in the boys’ bracket.

“I think coach (Carla) Crowder would agree,” said Ruple, “I think anybody can win our tournament on the girls’ side. What we try to do every year is get the competition to where it’s all very close and equal in the first game.”

Vilonia lost some key players from last year’s tournament championship team to graduation, but have enough pieces this year to win it all again. The Lady Panthers have played one team in their bracket this season.

Cabot played Watson Chapel in the first game of the year and dominated that game from start to finish. With Greene County Tech dropping out of the tournament because of its school policy, the Lady Panthers will likely receive a first-round bye if no eighth team answers the call to fill in for the Lady Eagles. As of Tuesday morning, no replacement for GCT had been found.

The Lady Panthers could see Watson Chapel again if it can get past Bryant in their first-round matchup. Harding Academy will play Searcy in the bottom part of the bracket, and Vilonia will play Benton to cap the first round.

“Greene County Tech has a school policy that says they can’t play on any weekdays they’re not in school,” Ruple explained. “That means we’ll either have a bye or we’ll try and get someone to come play us. It looks like we’ve already canceled our consolation games. But as far as the teams, we have played Watson Chapel and we have a victory over them.

“Vilonia we’ve seen in a JV game. They’re the defending champs of our pre-holiday tournament. They have a good group coming back. Harding Academy and Searcy both has really good teams. Searcy’s in our conference, and they probably have the most kids returning. But all the teams are fairly equal.”

Barring any setbacks in weather, the Cabot Pre-Holiday tournament is scheduled to wrap up on Monday with the girls’ championship game set to tip-off at 7 p.m., while boys’ championship game will follow at 8:30.