Last updated: January 03. 2014 12:55PM - 2243 Views
By - sschlaufman@civitasmedia.com

Contributed photoPurnell Swett's Kali Strickland feared that a wrist injury would force an early ending to her junior season. She instead played through the pain and became the school's first tennis player to make the state tournament.
Contributed photoPurnell Swett's Kali Strickland feared that a wrist injury would force an early ending to her junior season. She instead played through the pain and became the school's first tennis player to make the state tournament.
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2013 was a year filled with noteworthy sports moments, whether on the prep level or even local professionals that represented the county on a national stage. Championships were won, other strong seasons cut short, but there was hardly a dull time to be a fan.

The Robesonian sports staff went through the year’s highlights and picked out the top 13 stories of 2013.

1. Leach makes RobCo championship central

For Rowland native Vonta Leach, just getting to the Super Bowl was a thrill in itself.

“I always dreamt about this growing up in Rowland,” Leach told The Robesonian after winning the AFC Championship. “That’s what you play this game for. It took a long time to get here. I’m just going to embrace all of it and enjoy the moment.”

It was more than a moment that he got to enjoy though, as he became Robeson County’s most decorated football player when the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

What followed were parades and a bevy of celebrations, with Leach himself sporting his Super Bowl ring for many of them. Over the summer he hosted his foundation’s annual camp bringing with him an All-Pro team that included Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, Jacoby Jones, Andre Johnson, and local pros Sean Locklear and Hutch Eckerson. He hosted a casino night that benefitted his foundation and allowed locals to rub elbows with the NFL’s best. He even had to temporarily part with his jersey number when the Ravens met President Barack Obama at the White House, during which Leach handed a 44 jersey to the Commander-in-Chief.

There was a bit of turmoil as he was released and later resigned by the Ravens, but ultimately his year was defined by one thing: Robeson County got a Super Bowl champion.

2. Basketball team leads Fairmont’s golden year

It hardly seemed to matter at times when the Fairmont basketball team fell behind during the Class 2A state tournament, because the Tornadoes had a knack for coming back.

The team fell behind by 19 points during a second round game against Whiteville, then trailed by as many as 21 to Northside in the regional semifinals. In both cases, they came back, the latter comeback ending with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Kwinton Hinson.

“We just had to believe,” junior guard Jarrod Neal said beating Northside. “It’s all about execution. The same thing happened against Whiteville and that’s what we were talking about at halftime.”

The road ultimately ended at the East Regional final, when the Tornadoes couldn’t mount a comeback against Kinston, but the senior-heavy team of Luke Hunt, Charlton Townsend, Jackie Oxendine, JaQuan McRae and Kevin Frierson, along with young phenom Kwinton Hinson, went further than any team at the school had since 1994.

It was merely the beginning of the school’s athletic success to come.

The baseball team made a playoff run, putting together a 12-game win streak that ended in the third round of the state playoffs in the spring. In the fall, Fairmont’s volleyball team went 18-4, finishing second in the conference and making a run to the third round of the playoffs. The Golden Tornadoes also returned to glory on the gridiron, getting an 8-4 season and a return to the playoffs under first-year football coach Randy Ragland.

3. Lumberton football coach Joe Salas resigns following 0-7 start

When Joe Salas officially took the helm of the Lumberton High School football team in early January, he preached patience.

Not only were the Pirates losing plenty of key pieces from the 2012 season, but the new coach chose to make the transition from the run-heavy Wing-T to the pass-based Air Raid.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of offense they’ve run in the past, we’re starting fresh,” Salas said shortly after meeting with his players for the first time. “Starting new means we’re going to go young and we’re going to build.”

The building phase ended up being short and sweet. Seven games and eight weeks into his first season, the school opted to move in a different direction and had defensive coordinator Ron Cook take the helm for the final four games. Sources cited seven consecutive losses and growing discontent from staff, players and parents, as primary reasons for the change.

With one of the county’s toughest schedules and injuries to key players, the Pirates finished the season 1-10, winning only the Backyard Brawl against Purnell Swett. It snapped a six-year playoff streak for the school, which has yet to name a new coach for the coming year.

4. Shinnick leads UNCP football into new territory

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke got its first shot at televised glory this year and the Braves made it count.

In front of a record-setting crowd at Grace P. Johnson Stadium and a national audience on the CBS Sports Network, the Braves opened the season in September with a 25-21 win against fifth-ranked Winston-Salem State University, the school’s first win against a top-10 team.

With a game ball delivered by skydivers, a new entrance tunnel for the Braves to come out on and a boisterous crowd of 7,948, the players were stunned.

“I’ve never been part of anything like that” said UNCP quarterback Luke Charles. “I looked at coach (Pete) Shinnick towards the end of the game and said ‘This is fun right here.’”

The year only got bigger from there.

With wins over both WSSU and Valdosta State, the Braves beat both of last year’s national championship teams. They also got big wins against Fayetteville State, Shaw and soon-to-be-FBS opponent Charlotte. The school nabbed its first top-10 ranking in history and come playoff time, UNCP got the No. 2 seed in its Super Region as numerous records were set on both sides of the field.

The year ended on a down note when the Braves were beat 37-13 by North Alabama in the second round of the NCAA playoffs. Despite the finish, it still put things into perspect for a team that was reinstated and built from scratch for the 2007 season.

“It’s been a great ride and very rewarding,” Shinnick said. “We’ve had a bunch of great players come through here and great coaches. The university had a vision when we got this thing started and I’ve been very blessed to carry out that vision. I’m very fortunate to have witnessed a lot of neat things have happened here the last couple years.”

5. St. Pauls track keeps relay dynasty alive

St. Pauls track coach David Shaw knows that winning a state title isn’t easy.

Yet in the 4x200 meter sprint relay, his girls have now won four straight.

“It doesn’t happen every day,” Shaw said. “Even two years doesn’t happen every day.”

The Lady Bulldogs’ foursome of Gabby Currie, Alexis Roberson and sisters Tia and Tamara Glover finished the relay in 1:43.19, beating a team from Cuthbertson by nearly 1.5 seconds. The school has won a state title in the event every year since 2010.

The 4x100 team, which consists of Currie, the Glover sisters and Briana Newton, took second place with a time of 49.19 seconds. T.W. Andrews, which won the event, finished in 48.27 seconds, a 2A state meet record. It was the fourth time in four years the school has finished in the top two of the event.

Individually, Tia Glover had a third place finish in the 100 meter dash, running a 12.46 in the finals.

Currie, a senior who has been on the top relay teams since her sophomore years, said the team has a lot of internal pressure to keep the streak alive.

“Being here four years, you don’t want to be the person that ends it,” Currie said. “You don’t want to be the person that breaks the record, you don’t want to be the person that causes us to lose.”

Shaw credits the success to both the talent and the drive of the runners have have been on the teams.

“The routine here is that once they succeed one year, it’s in their blood to try and reach that point the next year,” he said. “They work hard to get to that. They hate losing.”

6. Strickland makes Swett history despite wrist injury

As the regular season wrapped up for the Purnell Swett girls tennis team, Kali Strickland wasn’t sure if she’d even see the postseason.

Though the junior eventually became the first tennis player in Purnell Swett history to make the state tournament, making her one of the top 16 players in the state. But several weeks earlier, the Rams’ top player heard a pop in her wrist and felt a surge of pain, which required her to miss a few matches while she had it looked at.

“I was waiting for those results and I didn’t know if something may have been torn or if my season would have been over,” Strickland said.

The bad news? The wrist was going to hurt regardless. The good news was that it was merely a bone contusion, which couldn’t be worsened by continued play. She simply limited her practice and heavily taped the injury prior to any competition.

She ended up finishing in the top four of the conference tournament, losing only to Lumberton’s Abby Kinlaw in a three-hour long semifinal match.

At regionals, she won her first two matches, which clinched her spot. It was the school’s first regional tennis win since 2003. Strickland lost in the first round at state, but the lessons were plentiful.

7. Mustangs ride transfers into third round of state tourney

The past decade hasn’t always been kind to the football teams at South Robeson but this year the Mustangs had plenty to celebrate.

In their second year under county Coach of the Year Stephen Roberson, the Mustangs not only made it to the playoffs for the second straight year, but went all the way to the third round of the playoffs.

“I’m just happy for the kids,” Roberson said after a first round win against Atkins. “We’re trying to establish some school pride and really, it means a lot to me because it means a lot to them.”

The playoff wins were the program’s first in 11 years and continues an upswing from the program, which had gone winless in 2011 before getting three wins in 2012.

At the center of it all were a pair of running backs that had transferred in. Andrew Hill, the quicker of the two, roacked up 1,683 rushing yards with 17 touchdowns, both of which led the county, and Juan Ellerbe had 1,128 yards with 12 touchdowns.

Combined with an infrequent but effective pass attack from Kalvis Chavis, South Robeson finished with a county-high eight wins before being eliminated from the playoffs by Albemarle for the second straight year.

The success even earned the attention of Baltimore Ravens fullback and South Rob alum Vonta Leach, who praised Roberson.

“He’s done a great job despite the hard task ahead of him when he took over,” Leach said. “It makes me feel good to know that South Robeson has a chance at getting back to the dominance of the area like we did back in the day.”

8. UNCP names new AD, continues upward climb

When Dick Christy visited The University of North Carolina at Pembroke campus for the first time since he had been a Division II student-athlete at Wingate, the soon-to-be Athletic Director was amazed at the growth.

“I visited here a few times as a student-athlete eons ago,” Christy said. “The first time coming back during the interview process I was amazed at the growth. When you get into the campus, it’s like a resort with gorgeous palms and fountains and facility enhancements. I think it’s a great product to sell.”

Christy, who had been working as the associate athletics director for external relations at North Carolina State University, was named UNCP’s new AD in April and joined the school several weeks later.

Since then the athletic department has worked to improve the experience for fans and student-athletes alike. On top of a rebranding effort, the school released a strategic plan earlier this month.

On top of all that, the school has had success in numerous fields of play in 2013. The baseball and mens soccer teams both had upsets of top-three ranked teams. Wrestler Mike Williams and track and field/cross country runner Pardon Ndhlovu both achieved All-American status. Meghan Moore won the Peach Belt Conference tournament and was named the conference golfer of the year. Baseball coach Paul O’Neil won his 400th game. The school even had NCAA tournament bids from the mens basketball and football teams.

Quite the year to be a Brave.

9. St. Pauls wrestling avoids being cut, raises triple the money needed

During a meeting in late March, the St. Pauls High School wrestling team appeared on the chopping block but a meeting between school administrators and team supporters seemingly changed the program’s fate.

Asked what it would take the keep the program going, at least for another year, supporters were told they would need to raise $3,000 privately to keep kids on the mat. The team did a little better, getting $9,534.72 by the end of May.

“Two or three years ago, wrestling wouldn’t have gotten that response (from the community),” wrestling coach Matt Anglin said. “It would have been like, ‘We have a wrestling program?’ But now it’s like, ‘We want it, we want to keep it.’”

The main point of contention was a high cost to keep the sport, which Anglin said cost the school in the $7,000 range last year. As the only Three Rivers Conference school with a wrestling team, the Bulldogs would have had to wrestle in the 2A East Central Conference. In that scenario, the closest conference opponent, North Brunswick, would have been 78 miles away in Leland.

Instead, the team chose to compete independently, allowing wrestlers to compete for regional and state titles, just not as a collective team.

The fundraising efforts were led by parent Billie Terry and Katrina Finch, and got the support of former UNCP coach P.J. Smith. The program got money from a variety of sources, including Robeson County Commissioner Lance Herdon, who represents St. Pauls. Herndon gave $3,000 from his discretionary fund.

The goal, Anglin said, is that the program become more self sustaining as it finds ways to utilize the money as long as possible.

“Looking back, it seemed like we were just getting cut and hanging left out to dry, but that’s not the case,” Anglin said. “We’re costing the school, so we’ve got to pull our weight.”

10. Britt wins second straight county POY award

When Fairmont’s baseball team attacked this year, it did so with a handful of pitchers that included young phenom Cole Lovin. None stood out more than Alex Britt.

The senior and UNCP signee became the third player in history to win consecutive player of the year awards, joining only former St. Pauls player Dwayne Gerald, who won awards in 1990 and 1991, and South Robeson’s Jerome Hunt, the current athletic director at Purnell Swett.

“Alex understands how to pitch and he’s one of the best we’ve ever had here,” said Fairmont coach Sandy Thorndyke. “We knew what to expect when we put him out there.”

Britt overcame back spasms early in the season to regain the dominance he flexed during a 10-win junior year. Grimacing through his first couple of starts, Britt led the area in strikeouts, innings pitched and helped the Golden Tornadoes to a berth in the third round of the state playoffs.

Behind his arm, the Golden Tornadoes put together a 12-game win streak that ended in the third round of the state playoffs. Britt allowed five runs in the game, but six total runs in the 43 innings prior.

Thorndyke credited Britt with a strong senior season.

“He’s pitched the best he could for us and if we had do it all over again, we’d put him on the mound again,” he said. “He’s one of the main reasons we’re here. They just beat us tonight.”

11. Bass wins County golf title, familiar faces take Kiwanis

The county’s top individual golf tournament ultimately came down to two friends on hole No. 1.

When all was said and done, 20-year-old Ryan Bass who sank a putt, took off his cap and walked over to his opponent, giving him a hug and a handshake as the Robeson County Golf Championships, sponsored by Dial Insurance, ended on the same hole it started on two days earlier.

Bass beat friend and defending champion Brad Locklear on a playoff hole to take the county title for the first time.

“I work as hard as I can on my game,” Bass said. “My putter came through for me.”

He became the tournament’s fourth champion in four years Locklear in 2012, Ian Locklear in 2011, and Kyle Covington in 2010. Covington had won seven of eight tournaments from 2003 to 2010.

Laura Bird, a women’s golfer at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Purnell Swett High alum, finished the county tournament at even-par 144 for her first win in three tries in the women’s division. Eddie Williams, son of longtime Pinecrest head professional and course superintendent C.M. Williams, won the senior division and Ashton Woods won the men’s division.

At the Kiwanis All-American Golf Tournament, Dyrck Fanning and Scott Benton reclaimed the top spot for the first time since 2007 with a 10-under-par 62.

“We won back-to-back and I told Scott I thought was like 2009 or 2010,” Fanning said. “When I got to looking it was 2006 and 2007. I told Scott I didn’t realize it’d been six years. It’s been a while.”

12. Lumberton soccer gets 1st win over Pinecrest in 10 years, Bradley Burnette named All-State

Defenders don’t always get the stats on the soccer field, but Lumberton’s Bradley Burnette got all the acclaim.

Burnette, who spent his youth watching the dominant Pirates of the mid-2000s, finished his senior season in the same tradition as the first player since 2007 to make the North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association’s All-State team.

“Having an older brother play and growing up around the program, he got to witness firsthand the success of previous teams and what it meant to be a part of it,” Lumberton coach Simmons said. “He learned to respect the tradition and eventually embraced it.”

He was only the fourth All-State player in school history, following Kyle Dickerson in 2007, Devin Musselwhite in 2003 and Chad Sanders in 2002.

The honor capped an eventful season for the team, which made it to the second round of the playoffs and had its first win against Pinecrest since 2003. In the win, the senior-heavy Pirates trailed 2-0 before Burnette used his size to score two goals off headers to tie the game and Zach Von Rupp and Jace Ward later scored the winners.

It made for a season that left Burnette more than happy, with him humbly crediting linemates Scott Cherichella, Mahir Patel and Antonio Massol for the success.

“I’m just glad I left my mark,” Burnette “I went out beating Pinecrest, I went out with a great team.

“That’s the best team we’ve had since I’ve been in high school.”

13. Lumberton pitches way to Slugfest title No. 6

There’s hardly an occasion that gets the Lumberton baseball team more excited than the annual Robeson County Slugfest tournament.

The Pirates continued to show why this year when they won their third straight tournament title and the seventh overall for coach Paul Hodges.

“These kids really get pumped up for this thing playing against their friends and other players in our county,” Hodges said following this year’s championship game.

The Pirates did it this year by beating host Purnell Swett 2-0 behind pitching from tournament MVP Justice Sampson. Sampson won in style, holding the game-tying run in scoring position in three straight innings of the championship game. On the opposite side, Austin Lee Locklear tossed a complete game without a walk, allowing a run each in the first and six innings.

Sampson provided the spark all year from the mound, which included a no-hitter in a loss to Richmond.

The Pirates ultimately struggled defensively and the senior-heavy squad fell missed the playoffs, but kept bragging rights within the county.

Lumberton fared better on the softball diamond, finishing 14-13 in coach Mackie Register’s return to the sport. Behind pitcher Meagan Skipper, the Pirates won their first state tournament game of the fast-pitch era.

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