Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers will be better off with tougher schedule

Leader sports editor

It matters who you play, and fortunately for Cabot and every other 7A football program not tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, they won’t all be saddled with a weak schedule that cannot prepare them for the 7A playoffs.

Several years ago the Arkansas High School Activities Association came up with the terrible idea of combining 7A and 6A conferences.

For some unknown and inexplicable reason, member schools took the AHSAA’s recommendation and passed the proposal, and it has created a huge advantage for northwest Arkansas teams.

It basically created one all-7A conference, one all-6A conference and two combined conferences. The teams in the all-7A conference, the 7A-West, were always more prepared for the playoffs than everyone else.

That manifested itself again this year, as evidenced by another season with an all-7A-West semifinal round.

Cabot rolled through its regular season with a perfect 10-0 record, while Fort Smith Southside entered last Friday’s game 7-4. The Rebels had been tested against the best the state has to offer while Cabot played no real quality 7A teams since week four.

That’s two months of competition that doesn’t make good teams any better.

As the old proverb says, iron sharpens iron. Cabot went through its season like a hot knife through butter, and butter doesn’t make the knife sharper.

Southside took some losses, but got better because of them.

This is, finally, the last year of combined football conferences. Other sports conferences will be combined next year, which is fine. No sport elucidates enrollment disparity like football, where depth is one of the single biggest factors.

Next year, Cabot’s traditional nonconference games against Conway and Catholic will be conference games next year. Those two nonconference slots will be replaced by El Dorado and Pine Bluff, while J.A. Fair will be replaced by Sylvan Hills.

Cabot’s conference schedule loses 6A teams Searcy, Mountain Home, Marion, Jonesboro and West Memphis. North Little Rock and Little Rock Central remain, while Conway, Catholic, Bryant, Fort Smith Northside and Fort Smith Southside all join Cabot in the new 7A-Central.

Bentonville is splitting, creating the third new high school in the northwest corner in the last 12 years.

Next year’s 7A-West will include Bentonville, Bentonville West, Springdale, Springdale Har-Ber, Rogers, Rogers Heritage, Fayetteville and Van Buren.

It could, and likely will, turn out that the Central will be a stronger conference than the West next year. That means Cabot, or any other Central team no longer saddled with two months of weak opponents, may not make it unscathed to the playoffs, but will be better prepared for a championship run.

The Panthers have to replace several key linemen, but almost all their skill players return for next season. Size could be an issue next year. The 2015 roster includes only three non-seniors over 240 pounds, and only one above 255.