Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers’ second shot

Leader sports editor

For the second time in three weeks, the Cabot Panther football team heads to North Little Rock to face the No. 1 team in the state, only this time a lot more is at stake.

In the final game of the regular season, Cabot gave the Charging Wildcats their toughest test of the year, but fell short 28-27.

In that game, North Little Rock had already clinched the 7A-Central championship, a No. 1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Cabot was also almost certain to finish fifth, no matter the outcome.

But the loser on Friday sees its season and championship dreams ended.

Key players from both teams that missed the first matchup will be back this week, none more key than North Little Rock running back Alex Day. He’s a Division I prospect and younger brother of former Razorback Juan Day, whose career was cut short by numerous knee injuries.

NLR coach Jamie Mitchell doesn’t usually like the idea of taking a week off before the playoffs, but said it was good for his team this year.

“Last week helped a whole lot to get some kids another week of therapy and rest,” Mitchell said. “There’s good and bad to not playing, and it worked for us this time. Next time it might not.”

Without Day, who was on concussion protocol in Week 10, North Little Rock’s offense was anemic in the first half, as the Panthers built a 21-3 lead by halftime.

The Charging Wildcats had the ball seven times in the first half and got zero first downs. They punted six times and kicked one field goal after a Cabot turnover deep in Panther territory.

Mitchell is glad to have his star player back, but thinks it’s going to take more than adding him to the lineup to improve his offense’s performance.

“Obviously any time he’s not out there for us, it’s not good,” Mitchell said. “He is our best player and he’s a tremendous player. We’re better with him than without him. But we’ve got to solve Cabot’s defense. They’ve defended us better than really anybody over the last two years. They have a strong defensive line and they execute well. We’re just going to have to play better.”

For Cabot, the issue comes down to mistakes. North Little Rock did get its offense moving a little better in the second half, but still would not have been able to complete the comeback without a series of mistakes, and some bad luck.

“I don’t know what we did wrong, but it seemed like some of those plays they got just came from above,” Cabot coach Mike Malham joked. We had four turnovers and that’s not even counting the blocked punt, which is just like a turnover. They made some adjustments and stopped our offense in the second half, but you still think you should pull that one off if we could’ve just held onto to the ball.”

In Cabot’s first-round playoff game, Bentonville West didn’t slow down Cabot’s offense at all. The Panthers rolled up 534 total yards, including 498 rushing. Quarterback Jarrod Barnes and fullback Eason Seidl rushed for more than 100 yards, and combined for seven touchdowns. Seidl, who started the season at linebacker, and then moved to defensive tackle before taking over at fullback in Week 9, scored five times.

“With him at fullback and Jarrod healthy at quarterback, it’s helped our offense,” Malham said. “His size gives us a little something we didn’t have, maybe keeps all the focus off the outside where Jarrod and our halfbacks can make plays.”

It was a seamless transition for the defense. David Hubanks had started at defensive tackle when Seidl played linebacker, and he fell right back into the spot when Seidl moved over to offense.

The transition has been made easier by the progress of junior Dayonte Roberts at nose guard.

“Dayonte has started playing a lot better than he was earlier in the season,” Malham said. “He finally got in shape after that shoulder injury kept him out, and that’s made a big difference.”

Mitchell thinks the first meeting came down to momentum and catching some breaks. He hopes it doesn’t come down to those things this time around.

“I wish I could tell you we have some magic up our sleeves that’ll help us move the ball on them,” Mitchell said. “I really don’t have a good answer for that, other than we just have to be better. You don’t really start changing things at this point, we just have to be better at what we do. I think last time, when they made some mistakes and we were able to get close, I think momentum kicked in for us and our guys got excited. I hope we can be in a better spot than we were last time.”