FAIRMONT — As the Three Rivers Conference football coaches mingled with each other Friday at Fairmont High School, there was hardly the competitive atmosphere traditionally associated with the sport.
The coaches bit into fresh-cooked chicken wings and fried rice, and joked with each other during the conference’s second annual media day but as the festivities neared completion, Fairmont athletic director Michael Baker joked about what’s to come.
“From this point on, it’s going to be competitive,” Baker said.
On the first day of practice for teams, it was the first time many of the coaches had been in the same room. The conference returns only three coaches — Fairmont’s Randy Ragland, St. Pauls’ Trey Sasser and Whiteville’s Luke Little — from last season.
New coaches include Ron Cook at Red Springs and Clay Jernigan at South Robeson, as well as West Columbus’ Jason Jones, South Columbus’ Kyle Hutchinson and Rocky Lewis at East Columbus.
For Whiteville, the talk was about building off of last year’s season, when the Wolfpack lost 17-7 to eventual Class 1-AA state champion James Kenan in the third round of the playoffs. It was the fewest points Kenan scored and the school’s smallest margin of victory in the entire tournament.
“I felt like we were 10 points away from being able to play for a state championship last year,” Little said. “We played James Kenan about as tough as you can play them and then they don’t even get any competition in the state championship, so our kids have taken pride in that.”
Little joked that there’s so much excitement, he often tries to park his car between buildings because so many people want to talk to him.
In their quest for another deep playoff run, he said the team has drawn more than 90 kids to practices and workouts, more than triple what the smaller programs in the conference have gotten.
It’ll be a far cry from what other conference teams will bring to the table, such as Fairmont and St. Pauls. The Golden Tornadoes graduated 23 seniors and the Bulldogs had another 18.
“We have one returner on offense,” Sasser said. “Defensively we’ve got six returners coming back and I feel confident on that side of the ball, which is good. That’s where you want to be good and I think the offense will come along.”
The Bulldogs finished third in the conference last season, behind only Whiteville and South Columbus.
Fairmont, who finished fourth in Ragland’s first season, will continue to build off the team’s first season in the Air Raid.
“I’ve always wanted to throw the ball every play,” he said. “So I think we’re going to try and accomplish that and throw every play this year.”
Red Springs will be using a lot of youth during Cook’s first season, with the caveat that many had playing time last season.
“We’re extremely young but at the same time we’re extremely excited and very ethusiastic, very upbeat since the day I came in,” he said. “They’ve been working real hard since then and it’s been showing in the weight room and on the field.
Cook is one of two former Lumberton assistants from last year who are leading a team this season. Jernigan had his players at South Robeson spend the summer in the weight room. As he’s gotten them on the field and ready for an inter-squad scrimmage later this month, he’s felt the excitement grow.
“If you go in April, May, June and July, Aug. 1 is like any other practice,” he said. “I’m trying to bring back a little excitement, trying to get the community to come and watch us.
“That’s what we’re trying to bring back to Rowland.”