Wednesday, December 18, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Tigers better, but Panthers can be proud

Leader sportswriter

Based on how competitive the first half was between Cabot and Bentonville in Friday night’s class 7A state football championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, a thrilling second half would have been expected.

Instead, the last two quarters were very one-sided, as the Tigers took complete control of the second half to win its fourth state title in school history, and third under head coach Barry Lunney’s tenure by the final score of 39-28.

Bentonville (11-2) trailed the previously unbeaten Panthers (12-1) 14-13 at the end of the first half, but in the second half, the Tigers outscored Cabot 26-14 to secure the victory. But even those scoring totals do not accurately reflect how dominant the perennial 7A West power was in the final two quarters of play.

The Tigers received the opening kickoff of the second half, and after a return to the Bentonville 25-yard line, running back Dylan Smith ran for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The second play of that drive alone told the story of the entire second half.

On that play, quarterback Kasey Ford completed a deep, 41-yard pass to Chris Scroggins. Scroggins was brought down at the Cabot 20, and six plays later Bentonville took its first lead since early in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by running back Hekili Keliiliki. (Have fun trying to pronounce that name.)

Keliiliki’s score was one of three unanswered touchdowns the Tigers scored in the second half, two of which came in the third quarter. Cabot dug itself into a hole during that stretch as two costly fumbles gave the ball back to Bentonville’s potent offense.

The second fumble by Cabot star fullback Zach Launius wasn’t actually a fumble though, as his knee was clearly down before the ball came loose.

Still, mistakes are to be expected in a high school game that doesn’t have the luxury of instant replay like college and professional games provide. It’s always going to be a judgment call, and the officials did their best to call a fair game, and should in no way be blamed for the Panthers’ loss.

If any blame should be cast for Bentonville leaving Little Rock with the class 7A state championship trophy, it should be, well, Bentonville who deserves all the blame. The Tigers deserve the blame for having the bigger, stronger, faster and more diverse athletes.

The Tigers were also helped by the fact that Cabot’s secondary didn’t play its best game Friday night, to say the least. The Panther defense repeatedly left the 5-to-10-yard outs and hooks open all game, especially in the second half. Cabot was clearly showing respect to the taller, faster Tigers receivers.

But in addition to giving up those short pass plays, the Panther defense gave up the big pass plays in the second half as well. Add that to the fact that Ford was given plenty of time to throw thanks to his massive offensive linemen who easily outweighed the Cabot defensive line across the board, and the results showed on the scoreboard.

In the third quarter alone, Ford, the 6-foot-5 sophomore, completed 7 of 14 pass attempts for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the game 11 of 18 passing for 265 yards and three touchdowns.

That’s just over 24 yards per completion, which is a very surprising statistic considering it rained nonstop the entire game. As far as who Ford’s favorite targets were Friday, Scroggins and fellow receiver Jimmie Jackson each caught four passes for over 100 yards and one touchdown.

Nationally recruited tight end Jack Kraus, who’s 6-foot-6 and weighs 234 pounds, caught two of Ford’s passes for 25 yards and one touchdown.

Since it rained throughout all four quarters, which meant a soaking wet ball no matter how many towels were used to dry them, it would’ve been reasonable to think Cabot would have the offensive advantage with their run-heavy, Dead-T attack.

Instead, Cabot finished the game minus two in the turnover category.

When Cabot fell into that multi-score deficit in the second half, its Dead-T attack, which is designed to control the clock, became almost a benefit for the Tigers, since it took too much time for Cabot to add its two second-half scores.

Even though the Panthers’ highly successful season ended in disappointment, it was still a great season for a team that not many people outside of Cabot believed would win its conference outright or be a serious contender once the playoffs began five weeks ago.

The unfortunate ending may sting now and will probably continue to sting the Panther players, coaches and fans in the community, at least for a little while.

But in time, the sting will eventually give way to looking back on a season with great pride and appreciation for what the team accomplished. Congratulations to the 2013 Cabot Panthers on one heck of a season. You’ve made your community very proud.