As if there wasn’t enough of a reason for the Conway Wampus Cats to want to add more wins to their total during the Class 7A playoff stretch, a longtime rival is set to come to town.
The last time the Cats faced Russellville, the Cyclones were the top-ranked team and sporting an 8-0 record. A late Ben Riner field goal gave Conway a 10-7 victory, but the upset wasn’t enough to send the Cats into the playoffs.
That was then.
With 7A-Central Conference victories over Little Rock Central and Van Buren, Conway (3-5, 2-3) has the leg up for one of the league’s six playoff spots. But that’s not all of the fuel in the fire.
"When you’ve got games like this, you can throw everything out the window because both teams want it so bad," said Cats coach Clint Ashcraft, who will be taking part in his first meeting of this storied rivalry. "Our kids want it bad, and after what happened last year at their place, I’m sure they (Cyclones) will want it pretty bad, too."
That might not have showed up on the field last time around.
"They beat us last year because we weren’t ready to play," said Russellville coach Jeff Holt, whose Cyclones enter tonight’s game at 6-1-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play. "We’ve got to be ready to play."
That can be said of the Cats last week, in which they notched a key 35-7 victory over Van Buren. The win did more than just improve Conway’s chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time sinec 2007.
"It showed the kids that if we play four solid, passionate quarters, we can be a good football team," Ashcraft said. "I think they’re starting to get that now."
Quarterback Xavier Acklin had a solid performance for Conway, rushing for 158 yards and four touchdowns. He now leads the team with 672 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, to go along with 907 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air.
"He’s definitely got our attention," Holt said. "He’s obviously a good player, and we’re going to have to find ways to stop him."
But Ashcraft knows Conway has a tough chore as well in trying to shut down Russellville, which has had a history of having success on the road. A spirited week of practice has helped bring more optimism, though.
"I really like what I’ve seen this week," Ashcraft said. "The kids were really competing against each other."
Ashcraft said the offense will no doubt have to handle a solid Cyclone blitz. Experiencing a little bit of that last week is something Ashcraft hopes helps tonight.
"With as much blitzing as Van Buren did, we had very few breakdowns," Ashcraft said. "There’s got to be some carry over there. The situation is similar, and hopefully they (offensive line) have just gotten better."
The Conway coach is hoping for some carry over on the defensive side as well.
"Last week, the goal-line stand and holding them (Pointers) on fourth down had to give the defense some confidence," Ashcraft said. "Hopefully, that will help them to continue to get better and gain even more confidence.
"We’ve got to keep them (Cyclones) in front of us. Their goal is to get the ball to their playmakers. We’ve got to prevent the big plays."
Stopping the Cats isn’t something Holt is taking lightly. With a new system in place, there’s more of a sense of uncertainty when trying to defend these Cats.
"They’re completely different than they’ve been in the past," Holt said.
Conway is hoping the playoff situation is different this season, too. With reaching the playoffs as the goal, there’s still work to be done.
"There’s a lot of football left to be played, even though there’s just two games left," Ashcraft said. "We’ve just got to take care of ourselves, and the rest will work itself out."
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Centennial Bank Field at John McConnell Stadium.