Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Annual Week 4 showdown

Leader sportswriter

The Cabot Panthers and North Little Rock Charging Wildcats will open 7A/6A-East Conference play against each other at 7 p.m. Friday at Panther Stadium in what’s become one of the best rivalries in the state.

In 2012, North Little Rock had, arguably, the most talented team in the state. That Charging Wildcats team advanced all the way to the 7A semifinals, and beat Cabot twice that season, the second time coming in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs.

Last season, when Cabot finished the year as the 7A state runner-up, the Panthers beat North Little Rock, 48-31, in the regular season, and then beat the Wildcats in a very close 43-42 double-overtime thriller in the semifinals to get to the state championship game.

“Well, you know, two years ago they torched us twice and won the conference,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “Last year we clipped them twice and won the conference. So it’s a big game. They’re probably the best team on our schedule. They probably have the most talent.

“As far as looking at them on paper, it’s probably the biggest challenge of the year by far. Them and Conway played a pretty good scrimmage, but I think they got the better of Conway. We’ve got to understand, and I think they (the players) do, that this is a big one.

“They’ve got to go hard every play and do the right things, and not help out a team like North Little Rock. Hopefully we’ll again improve a little bit, correct some mistakes we’ve been making, and take care of the football and give ourselves a chance.”

Each team enters Friday’s highly-anticipated matchup with 2-1 records, and both teams, for the most part, have looked stellar in nonconference action.

After losing a 24-22 game to Conway in week one, Cabot slaughtered Catholic en route to a 62-14 win, and the Panthers made quick work of struggling Little Rock Fair last week, beating the war Eagles, 41-0.

North Little Rock didn’t look as good against Catholic as Cabot did, but did have to overcome some unfortunate adversity before that week-one game, as one of the team’s buses got in a wreck on the way to the game.

No players were seriously injured in the wreck, but it still had to have an effect on the team’s performance that night. Still, the Wildcats won that night, 17-7. North Little Rock traveled to tradition-rich Fayetteville in week two, and lost that game, 43-33, before beating Class 6A Pine Bluff last week by the final score of 45-24.

Cabot has gotten what it’s expected out of its veteran players so far this season, but the way the sophomore talent has performed thus far has been nothing short of a very pleasant surprise.

Unlike Cabot, the way North Little Rock’s starters have played this season has been no surprise whatsoever. The Wildcats have 10 returning starters from last year’s 10-win team, and the offensive star is University of Arkansas commit, K.J. Hill (6-0, 185), who was also the state’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2013.

Last season, Hill, who plays receiver and running back, totaled 2,071 all-purpose yards and 26 touchdowns, including 1,143 receiving yards and 16 TDs. He has 4.3 speed, and is arguably the most dangerous returner on special teams in the state.

As is often the case with NLR, it just so happened to get a significant addition to the team via transfer in former Catholic High leading rusher, D.J. Brown (5-9, 195), who led the Rockets in 2013 with 1,017 rushing yards and 10 TDs. He also caught 61 passes for 712 yards and four touchdowns in 2013, and he too is a dangerous returner on special teams. Brown is off to another great start in 2014.

Cabot will also have to worry about a three-year starter at quarterback in senior Heath Land (6-0, 190). Land split snaps as a sophomore in 2012, and he had a breakout year in 2013 as the full-time signal caller in NLR’s multiple Pistol offense.

Last year, Land completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,455 yards and 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions, including a 334-yard, four-TD effort against Cabot.

“They’ve got Hill, Brown and four or five others,” Malham said. “It doesn’t really matter who they get the ball to. They’re all good athletes. They’ll spread you thin, and our kids are going to have to play their best.

“They’re going to have to tackle in the open field and not give them big gains after they get in the open field.”

North Little Rock’s offensive and defensive lines have also done a good job this season of creating holes for its skill players to run through, and Malham said the Wildcat players up front “will make us look little.”

Defensively, NLR returns five starters from a year ago, and the Wildcat D typically likes to give multiple looks, but against Cabot, the Wildcats will most likely do what they’ve always done against the Panthers’ Dead-T attack, and that’s load up the box and attack the gaps in an attempt to slow down Cabot’s potent run game.

Malham’s offense will stick to what it does best come Friday, and he knows that it’s going to be necessary for his offense to be able to move the football and control the clock if the Panthers hope to have a chance to come out of Friday’s conference game with a win.

“What’s going to help us is we can control the ball and keep the ball on offense, and keep their offense on the sideline some,” Malham said. “That’s a big key, too. If we don’t move the ball and they have a lot of snaps they’re going to put some points on the board. They’ve got too many athletes not to.

“We’re going to play that keep-away game and, hopefully, control the ball and keep their offense on the sideline, and we’ve got to put some points on the board.”