Playoff hopes are still alive for the Conway Wampus Cats, but a win tonight would go a long way.
The Cats (2-4, 1-3) will meet Van Buren in a matchup of two teams looking to claim what could be one of the final two spots. Both teams bring a 1-3 7A-Central Conference record into the game, while Little Rock Central is 0-4, including a loss to Conway.
Needless to say, tonight’s meeting is a pivotal game with just three weeks left.
"All of the games are important, but this one’s huge because (a win) would put us on top of two teams in the conference," Cats coach Clint Ashcraft said, referring to six of eight teams from the conference earning a spot in the playoffs. "We’ve been looking at this as a must-win game."
Conway is coming off a 31-14 loss to Bryant last week. The Hornets scored all 31 of their points in the first half, while the Cats scored their’s in the second half. But Ashcraft knows its going to take more than just a good half for there to be much success.
"I thought we played well in the second half last week," Ashcraft said. "We’ve got to find a way to play four quarters with that passion and intensity."
If the week of practice is any indication, Ashcraft may have some room for optimism.
"Our kids seem to bounce back very well," Ashcraft said. "They’ve had a good week of practice. Our seniors have a good job of stepping up and helping the team push through this adversity."
The Cats will also have to push through an offensive style they haven’t seen much. The Pointers (1-5, 1-3) run the option, causing Conway to adjust its weekly routine from a lighter Monday to heavier preparation.
"We started Monday trying to defend the option," Ashcraft said. "We’ve done a lot of team defense this week to make sure we’re ready. You don’t see the option very much."
Still, the way the Cat defense has played of late, they’ve showed signs of being a strong unit.
"As they’re getting more comfortable, they get more and more aggressive," Ashcraft said. "Their speed has really picked up."
On the other side of the coin, the Van Buren defense can wreak its own kind of havoc.
"They’re a heavy blitz team," Ashcraft said. "That’s what we’ve been focusing on all week."
That puts a lot of importance on the play of the offensive line. That’s a group that Ashcraft said has improved as well.
"They’ve picked up their intensity and are sustaining blocks better," Ashcraft said. "They’re learning more what we’re doing. They’re getting better each week.
"They’ve worked really hard on pass protection and run blocking for a team that blitzes as much as Van Buren."
While the offensive line may have the initial responsibility, the quarterback no doubt has his part to play. Xavier Acklin has posed dual-threat abilities this season, passing for 783 yards and rushing for 516 more and eight touchdowns.
"Xavier’s responsible for knowing where to go with the ball," Ashcraft said. "He’s done a good job this week of knowing who gets the ball if this (linebacker) blitzes."
Put simply, tonight’s keys are to "stop the option and pick up the blitz," Ashcraft said. The Cats coach, though, knows that’s easier said than done.
There could be a change on the offensive line. Guard Luke Urrey has a sprained MCL, and his status is doubtful. Ashcraft said Austin Kohl may move to guard and Dylan Polk to center. Ben Stegeman could see some time at center as well.
Ben Tusson, who missed the past two games with a broken finger, will be out again tonight.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Van Buren’s Blakemore Field.