Tuesday, December 03, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Seniors living up to expectations

Leader sportswriter

The fact that the 2013 Cabot Panthers are undefeated and playing for the class 7A state championship may come as a surprise to most around the state, even to those within the Cabot community. But it’s no surprise at all to longtime Cabot coach Mike Malham, whose team will vie for its third state title under his lead Friday night against Bentonville at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Malham’s reasoning for such high expectations has everything to do with the talent, cohesiveness and discipline of his players, especially those in the veteran 2014 senior class.

The Panthers returned 13 starters from last year’s team that went 7-5 and advanced to the quarterfinal round of the 2012 playoffs.

The majority of those starters from a year ago are now seniors – seniors that have experienced significant team success since competing at the junior high level. A good chunk of the Cabot seniors were a part of the Cabot Junior High South teams that went undefeated in the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

That kind of success left Malham eager to see what he could get from that group by the time he finished with them, and the chance to put the icing on the cake, so to speak, will come Friday against the tradition-rich Tigers from the northwest part of the state.

“The South team went 10-0 and I think North was about .500 that year,” said Malham of the 2010 junior-high teams. “Between the two, when you put them together – of course, a lot of these seniors played when they were sophomores. And we took our lumps two years ago. We won three games that year, but we got better as the year went on.

“Ten-to-12 sophomores that year, even if they didn’t start, they got a lot of playing time. Then last year we won more than twice as many games, won seven, made it to the quarterfinals, got a big win against Bryant in the playoffs. Last time we felt like we really had a chance was in 2009.

“This crew was the one that we pointed to that we thought had a chance, and so far they haven’t been a disappointment. They’ve really taken care of business. Really, last week was the first time we’ve really had a real, real close barnburner, because everybody else we’ve beaten by more than 13 points.”

In the preseason, the coaches within the 7A/6A East picked North Little Rock to win the conference, but Cabot beat the Charging Wildcats 48-32 in the conference opener. Then last week in the semifinals, the Panthers escaped their rivals with a nail-biting, one-point, double-overtime victory to advance to Friday’s championship game.

Cabot was picked to finish second in the preseason conference standings, and part of that might have had to do with the fact that the Panthers were going to play the 2013 season without two returning starters on the offensive line.

Despite the loss of those two returning starters on the line, Malham said he believed this year’s Panther team could compete with any other team in the state.

“We really entered the season thinking we could compete with anybody,” Malham said. “We didn’t know if we could beat everybody, but we knew we could compete, and that was our goal. They know what it’s like to win.

“They may not have the height, weight and speed that colleges want, but they’re good high-school players. They play hard and they play smart. You play like that then you got a chance.”

Several of the Panther seniors are witnessing their hard work and dedication to the team paying off, and expressed many of the same sentiments as their head coach.

Senior twins Heath and Keith Pledger have been in the Cabot football program from the start, and were members of the South teams that went undefeated in 2009 and 2010.

“The town’s been behind us, and this is the year we’re supposed to go all the way,” said Keith Pledger, who starts at tight end and also plays defensive tackle. “We’ve got three-year starters and we’ve got experience under our belts. We’ve seen a lot, and we just train every day and do our best.”

Heath Pledger is the starting right guard for the Panthers. He also plays defensive tackle, and said he’s thrilled to be playing in the last game of year and seeing the team’s hard work result in something special.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Heath Pledger. “It just shows what you can do with all the coaching, and the coaches push us pretty dang far – five and a half, six years of going through it, and it finally paying off feels pretty good.”

Senior fullback Zach Launius became the first Panther back in the last several years to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, and has done so in a big way as he’s approaching the 2,000-yard milestone.

Launius is Cabot’s most potent weapon on offense, but he gave all the credit to his offensive linemen and fellow running backs for his success this season.

“It’s not all just me,” said Launius. “I think a good 90 percent of my yards are solely based off of offensive linemen, and offensive backs blocking. I wouldn’t give myself much credit. Maybe there have been a couple of missed tackles here and there, but it’s mainly just our offense.”

Launius, who was also a part of the decorated South teams in ’09 and ’10, went on to say that even in that time, their class shared a unique bond with the rival North Junior High team of that era.

“Even playing our rivals in junior high that year, which was North, even then we knew who they were and we were still good friends with them since first grade and kindergarten. We’ve always been brothers since then. It’s never been about us. It’s always been about the team.”

Senior defensive tackle Aaron Henry had similar things to say about growing up with his teammates, and the bond they all share.

“It’s been great growing up with all these boys,” said Henry. “I’ve enjoyed it and have had fun with them. Seeing us all grow together, we’re a bunch of brothers, having fun playing our game of football.”

With the loss of two starters on the offensive line before the season even started, senior center Blake Gibson said it was up to the upperclassmen to help the new starters up front get integrated into the team’s blocking assignments and schemes, and to lead by example for the juniors and sophomores.

“We knew we had two new guys coming in at left guard and left tackle, and we started running this new offense,” said Gibson. “So we knew on the O-line we had to step up and lead by example in the chutes, come out in practice every day. It started in offseason in the weight room. We came out and just worked hard, and showed those other guys what it meant to work hard.”

In addition, senior running back Chris Henry expressed how important it was for this senior class to stick together in order for the Panthers to put themselves in position to reach the ultimate team goal.

“I thought it was very important for us all to stay together,” said Chris Henry. “We know each other, and it’s good to know each other when you’re playing on the field. You know where everybody’s going to be at the right time, and it’s key to know where everybody’s at.”

Senior quarterback Kason Kimbrell, like every other player quoted, was part of the highly-successful South teams in 2009 and 2010, and made it very clear how he and this senior class want to finish their playing days in Panther uniforms.

“This is the last game I’m going to play as a Cabot Panther,” said Kimbrell. “That’s pretty big. There are a lot of seniors on this team that want to go out with a ring. For four years we’ve worked hard in the offseason, during the season. This is the year that everybody’s been waiting for, and we want to bring a state championship back to the Central and back to Cabot.”