Tuesday, December 03, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers battle Tigers for state title

Leader sports editor

Two of the most successful coaches in Arkansas scholastic sports meet once again with everything on the line when the Cabot Panthers take on the Bentonville Tigers for the class 7A football state championship.

When Cabot coach Mike Malham and Bentonville coach Barry Lunney Sr. shake hands at War Memorial Stadium before Friday’s 7 p.m. kickoff, it will be the third time they’ve done so in this situation.

The coaches met when Lunney was at Fort Smith Southside in the 1998 and 2000 state championship games. Lunney won the former, Malham the latter.

Last week, Malham said it’s been “way too long” since his Panthers have been to the state championship game. That championship year, when they went 14-0 was the last time.

That year marked the third time in four years Cabot made it to the title game, and the first time in those three years it won it all.

Since then, Lunney has won four more state championships, including one at Fort Smith Southside and three at Bentonville.

The Tigers have played in each of the last three state championship games, and played in four of the last five. They won state championships in 2008 and 2010, and lost in 2011 and 2012 to Fayetteville.

Both coaches believe Bentonville’s experience in championships will be a minor advantage, at least for a while.

“They’ve made a habit of getting here,” Malham said. “I think their seniors have been here three times so they’d be a little more comfortable in the environment. But I don’t know, I think once the ball is kicked off and the first blow is in, everything evens out after that.”

“I think our staff and our support people that come here, and the players that have done it, it certainly takes some of the edge off,” said Lunney. “Whether that’s an advantage or not, I don’t know. It hasn’t worked out for us the last couple of years. But I think the familiarity is good.”

Cabot, 12-0, boasts a better record than Bentonville, 10-2, but hasn’t played quite the same schedule. The Tigers’ two losses were to Euless Trinity, Texas 21-10 and Broken Arrow, Okla. 24-17, in weeks two and three. Those two teams have gone a combined 19-1 since then and are still alive in their respective state playoffs.

Bentonville has built a reputation over the years as a passing team, with Barry Lunney Jr. as the offensive coordinator. Lunney Jr. is now the tight ends coach at the University of Arkansas, and the Tigers have pounded teams on the ground with much success this year.

“I think reputations sometimes are a little misleading,” Lunney said. “I think if you look back you’d see that we were a very balanced offense. But we’re more run this year than pass. We have a sophomore quarterback and some good running backs. So we’re trying to get it done more with the run.”

The sophomore quarterback, Kasey Ford, stands 6-foot-5 and tips the scales at 220 pounds. Despite the rushing attack, Bentonville has enjoyed a lot of success in the passing game. The head Tiger thinks his quarterback needs more time to develop but has nearly limitless potential.

“He’s very talented. I think in time, he’s going to be a very highly-recruited player from the state of Arkansas.”

Ford has no shortage of talent to throw to either. His favorite target, senior tight end Jack Kraus, is 6-6, 234 and has already signed with Arkansas. And there’s a good stable of wideouts that help compliment Bentonville’s dominant running game. Most prominent among them is 6-2, 175-pound senior Jimmy Jackson, who is the Tigers’ main deep threat. Jackson has averaged more than a touchdown per game, including six touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more.

“They’ve beat people over the top a lot this year,” Malham said. “You have to cover the whole field. You squeeze in there to stop that big ole running back; they’ll hit a big one on you. It’s going to be a big challenge for our defense to slow them down.”

Bentonville actually has two big running backs, and both are juniors. Dylan Smith is 5-9, 190 and Hekili Keliiliki is 6-0, 190. Smith is the full-time tailback while Keliiliki has played both ways this season. Starting linebacker Clay Wallace had missed four games before the semifinals, one for a disciplinary suspension, and three with illness, but he returned last week. In his absence, Keliiliki filled in so well, they kept him at linebacker last week, except for a few plays on offense.

Cabot has its own outstanding running back in senior fullback Zach Launius. He’s not as impressive in stature as the Tiger crew, but at 5-6, 165, he has run for 1,801 yards and 30 touchdowns this season.

The undersized fullback runs behind a slightly undersized line that averages about 237 pounds. Bentonville’s defensive line is slightly bigger, averaging about 245.

Conversely, the Bentonville offensive line averages about 250, while the Cabot defensive line averages 224.

“They’re bigger than us,” Malham said. “They just have bigger kids. But we’ve seen that all year. We’re just going to have to draw up and play hard-nosed football. If they knock us off the ball they’re going to move the ball. We have to play strong and square, and if we can stop the run we have a chance. I hope they have to throw it. That’s the big challenge is to slow them down running it because nobody really has.”

Lunney sees the exact same challenge for his defense.

“There’s no doubt preparing for Cabot is difficult,” Lunney said. “You don’t play a Monday night B game against them, and there’s no one that we play that comes anywhere close. We play Rogers who runs a bone, but that’s a whole different animal than what Mike does. So it puts a great burden on your kids and your staff.”

Lunney stumbled trying to pinpoint a single key to teaching players that have never played against the Dead T how to do it.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to try to do a little differently,” Lunney said. “We talked about it yesterday as a staff, and we decided we don’t want to over-complicate it. We didn’t want to say, ‘hey you got to stay low, and you got to read this guy and you got to read this guy,’ because then all of a sudden, you take a little bit of the instinct of a guy from being a player away from him with too much analysis.

“It just is what it is. They’re going to go hard downhill. They’re going to run the belly. We just have to find a way, which nobody else has done obviously in 12 or 13 weeks, to neutralize the line of scrimmage and not let them into our side so much.

“Until they get out there on the field and experience it themselves, it’s difficult to get across. Hopefully it won’t take very long to adjust and start making some plays.”

All the great players combined with excellent execution is what Malham believes makes Bentonville a dangerous team. He expects a well-played championship game if both teams stick to what got them this far.

“They’re just awfully good,” Malham said. “They don’t make mistakes. You’ve got to beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves. But we think of ourselves the same way. You have to beat us. Hopefully we can avoid mistakes and make it a great game.”