Tuesday, August 23, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Cats, Mavs top of class in the new 7A-Central

Leader sportswriter

The 7A/6A-East Conference is now a thing of the past. The Cabot Panthers will look to defend their conference championship in the new 7A-Central Conference, which will feature a good balance of 7A teams from last year’s 7A/6A-East, along with other 7A teams from the northwest and central part of the state.

With an SEC-caliber athlete at quarterback, the Panthers should once again compete for the conference championship this season, but with the loss of the projected starter at fullback and with only a handful of returning starters on that side of the ball, there’s a good chance the Panthers will fall short of repeating as conference champs.

1) North Little Rock Charging Wildcats

North Little Rock struggled out of the gate last season with a new head coach and new system in place, but after their four-game skid to start the season, the Charging Wildcats won seven-consecutive games, including a 35-0 rout of Fort Smith Northside in the first round of the playoffs.

The Wildcats lost a seven-point game to Bentonville in the next round, but it was a good sign of what could come this season. With five starters back on offense, including senior All-State running back Alex Day, and six back on defense, NLR is The Leader’s pick to win the 7A-Central crown this season.

2) Southside Mavericks

That’s right, Southside is now the Mavericks, and the name change will likely be all that changes this season for the tradition-rich school. Since 2009, Southside has won at least eight games every season, doing so in the mega-tough 7A-West.

Southside entered last year’s playoffs as the lowest seed from the West, but proved battle-tested when beating previously undefeated Cabot in the second round of the playoffs at Panther Stadium.

With eight starters back on offense and five more returning on defense, expect the Mavericks to be serious contenders for the conference championship.

3) Cabot Panthers

Coming off a 10-1 season with a future SEC athlete quarterbacking the team, it’s hard to think the tradition-rich Panthers could finish as low as third in their own conference. But the Panthers had to replace the bulk of their starters on offense, and now with the loss of fullback Alex Roberts, who tore an ACL in the summer and as a result isn’t expected to return this season, the Panthers have yet another void to fill.

Arkansas Razorbacks commit Jarrod Barnes will do what he’s done the previous two years at quarterback, make plays, but the Panthers return no starting linemen. Cabot does return eight starters on defense, but three of those starters are coming off serious injuries, and one of those three isn’t expected back until week four at the earliest.

Even with all three of those defensive starters at full strength, the team’s lack of experience on the offensive line and having to replace the starting fullback could make things very difficult for the Panthers to win the league crown. Even considering all that, though, Cabot still has plenty of talent and will once again contend for the conference championship.

4) Conway Wampus Cats

Conway finished 6-6 last season and returned eight starters on offense and six more on defense. On offense, though, the Wampus Cats’ two-time All-State quarterback graduated in May and signed with Central Arkansas.

They do, however, return their top rusher, receiver and tackler from a season ago. Those are positives for Conway, but its unproven quarterback will have to catch on quick if the Wampus Cats hope to compete for the conference championship in this league.

5) Bryant Hornets

Similar to Cabot, it’s hard to imagine Bryant, a school that’s won at least seven games a season since 2009, this far down the list. The Hornets won nine games last year, but return only three starters on offense and are replacing a lot at the skill positions.

They do return experience on defense with seven starters back from a season ago, but they’ll need to score points to compete in this stacked league, and it’s unknown whether or not this group of newcomers can do that.

6) Northside Grizzlies

Over the last several years, the Grizzlies haven’t won near as many games as their crosstown rival, but like Southside, Northside is battle-tested, coming from the 7A-West. They are a senior-led team with 31 seniors, one of the largest senior classes the school’s seen in a while.

Northside only won four games last year, but had a brutal schedule. With seven starters back on offense and eight returning on defense, there’s a good chance the Grizzlies can finish higher than sixth, but they’ll need to stay healthy because even though they have 31 seniors, their depth is low for Class 7A.

7) Central Tigers

Central won only three games last season. The Tigers return six starters on each side of the ball and their strength will be at the skill positions. But, they’re inexperienced on the line and that could lead to some trouble for the Tigers this season.

They do have what’s said to be a talented sophomore class, but it’s hard to expect sophomores to make a team a contender at this, or really any, level. Central always has the athletes to give teams fits, but don’t expect that to lead to many wins in 2016.

8) Catholic Rockets

Catholic only won four games last year, but lost a couple of very close games, including an overtime loss to Cabot in week two and a three-point loss to Southside in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rockets return four starters on offense and defense and their strengths will be in the kicking game and on the defensive line, but they lack experience at the running back and linebacker positions, and being the smallest school in Class 7A can’t help their chances of competing for a playoff spot.