Fairmont has to slow down the county’s top performer, blanket the area’s two most productive receivers and contain a tailback who moves the chains on nearly every carry.
But Hunt and three other senior starters on defense say they are ready for the challenge and are set on finishing off their prep careers unbeaten against their chief Three Rivers Conference rival. A win would also throw a wrench in the Red Devils’ run to their first league title in eight years.
"We know they got a good team but we feel like we're ready to play with them," Hunt said after Wednesday's practice.
Friday marks one of the final marquee games of the season for a group that set its expectations perhaps a little too high following last year’s 12-1 finish. With a new coach in tow, Fairmont returned a slew of starters, the majority of its bulk up front and weapons on the outside that rivaled top talent at other conference schools. The two-time defending conference champs were supposed to challenge for another Three Rivers title and possibly more in the postseason.
But those goals evaporated quickly.
The Golden Tornadoes stumbled out of the gate with a loss to Union, their first regular season loss since Sept. 24, 2010, but recovered in late August with back-to-back convincing wins.
And despite a boost of confidence after an early setback, everything came unglued against Lake View, S.C.
Players left the bench and one threw a punch during a fourth-quarter skirmish at the midfield. The end result was a playoff ban and hefty fine from the NCHSAA. A testament to the coaching staff and leadership on the team, Fairmont has weathered the storm one month since the incident at 4-4 overall and is trying to bounce back from last week's loss to West Columbus, one that snapped a 14-game conference winning streak.
Friday night provides the ideal “all-in” opportunity for the Golden Tornadoes to record a signature win in an adversity-filled season. They’ll get a similar opportunity against St. Pauls two weeks from now in the season finale.
"It's a big game, always is against Red Springs," linebacker Charlton Townsend said. "They are the best passing team we've played and we know defense is big."
Fairmont head coach James Atkinson is focusing on the bigger picture.
"It's special since it's a rivalry, but we're just worried about getting better and improving every game," he said "This is the first time since Week 2 that we're close to full strength. We're not there yet, but we're close. We haven't had a full deck most of the season, so we're used to it now. It's old hat to us playing with men down."
On the flip side, the Red Devils have won back-to-back games since a loss to Goldsboro and welcome back the county’s leading receiver whose missed the last two games with a knee injury. JuJu Brown practiced Wednesday and is “almost 100 percent” according to coach George Coltharp.
Red Springs will continue practicing with limited contact in helmets only during the final stretch of the regular season as it preps for a playoff run. Thin on depth, keeping players healthy is the idea.
“We don’t have to come up with any extra ra-ra stuff this week in preparation for Fairmont,” Coltharp said. “It’s a rivalry game, so of course you mention bragging rights for 365 days and all that stuff. But our kids get that it’s the next step in achieving our goal of a conference championship. I think our program understands the sense of urgency and we’ll try to keep that going this week.”
Two of the last four games in the series have gone to overtime including last year’s memorable 40-34 finish in Fairmont that ultimately clinched the conference championship for the Golden Tornadoes. Red Springs squandered a 20-point halftime lead and missed a chip shot field goal that would’ve won it in regulation.
“We’ve mentioned that this week, our kids haven’t forgot,” Coltharp said. “We felt like Fairmont did what they were supposed to do to win and we did what we were supposed to do to lose. I think we surprised them a little bit with that lead, we just didn’t put it together in the second half. Our kids were young, not used to that kind of stage I think.”
Added quarterback Blake Greene: “That one still stings.”
The Red Devils offense has gotten back on track since a few midseason hiccups with a renewed emphasis on the running game. Tailback Jedarian Lesane is coming off a career-high 200-yard game against East Columbus and wideout Zach Leach has seen more snaps from the backfield in recent weeks.
The Air Raid offense has developed into a more balanced attack in Year 2 as well. Red Springs is scoring points at a near identical clip, but mixes it up with fewer passes. Overall team speed is something that sticks out on film to the opposition.
"They've got a couple athletes that are very special," Atkinson said. "They're pretty good on special teams, too. We'll have to be able to contain their talent to have a chance to win."
Coltharp understands where the bullseye is located and says Fairmont is a dangerous team with plenty of good players.
“I’m sure coach (Atkinson) is looking at this game as one to hang his hat on,” Coltharp said. “I know they’ve had a tough season, but that’s expected when dealing with teenagers. He’s a good guy and they’ll get it turned around. I tell everyone that high school football teams are a girlfriend break-up away from things spiraling out of control. It’s as simple as that sometimes.
"If we overlook this team, we'll get beat.”