Cabot vs. Conway; It’s not only a huge and ballyhooed high school game that will proceed the huge college game (Alabama vs. Arkansas) the next day in this state.

It’s an intriguing matchup.

It’s also a litmus test for the Wampus Cats, who have made one of the best starts for a Conway team in decades at 3-0.

The teams are meeting for the third time in less than a year. Cabot overpowered the Wampus Cats, 38-7, in the second round of the 7A playoffs last season on the way to playing for a state title.

The manner of the Panther victory got the Conway coaches and players to thinking and they made the weight room priority 1. If Conway was going to compete for titles with the likes of Cabot, it meant getting bigger and stronger.

Tonight is the test.

"You’ve got to match Cabot’s intensity and physical style," Conway coach Clint Ashcraft said. "You’ve got to practice how they play. Cabot’s gonna play the same way they have for years. You have to practice how they play. Cabot’s always tough to prepare for but, from the experience last year, our kids know what to expect."

It’s also a test for Cabot, which has played high-powered Pulaski Academy and Springdale Har-Ber in successive weeks. That was also designed to prepare the Panthers for conference challenges.

Practices have been different this week for the Wampus Cats for a conference opener that could have ramifications months from now.

"I told the kids we were going to change the mood and tweak the way we practice this week," Ashcraft said. "That can be tough for kids who get into a routine, get comfortable with what they are doing, then you change things.

"One of the main things is to get our kids accustomed to Cabot’s Dead-T offense. They do something different things."

The Wampus Cats are coming into the game with a lot of momentum and growing statewide attention after getting to 3-0 after breaking a fourth-quarter tie and taking advantage of Rogers Heritage mistakes with an offensive flurry in a 34-14 last week in a matchup of unbeaten teams.

"After the first two weeks (decisive victories over Fort Smith Southside and Jonesboro), we needed to be in a fight late," Ashcraft said. "I told our kids at halftime (in a 7-7 tie at the half) we were going to find out a lot about this team and what we are made of. I liked how our kids handled that and responded.

"When you’re in a bigtime fight like that, somebody is going to mess up and fortunately, it was them."

While tonight’s game should attract one of the largest crowds at John McConnell Stadium since the Peyton Hillis days, Ashcraft is trying to keep his team (ranked in the top three of most statewide polls) on an even keel.

"To us, it’s not any bigger game than any other," Ashcraft said. "We’re treating every week like it’s the Super Bowl. The focus is going to be in that one week.

"We’re telling our kids to forget about the past, focus on the present all the time and the future will take care of itself."

Conference games are what counts as far as playoff berths and pairings. Everyone in 7A begins tonight 0-0.

"We’ve told our kids that a lot this week," said Ashcraft.

BREAKING OUT: Zach Conque, a son of University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque and a Conway resident, had a breakout performance last week as the starting quarterback for Little Rock Catholic.

In the Rockets’ 45-26 victory over Fort Smith Northside, Conque, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior, completed 21 of 34 passes for 317 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He rushed five times for 85 yards and a touchdown.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)