A program yearning for stability amidst five consecutive losing seasons, the Red Devils barely had enough players to field 22 starting positions, much less a unit capable of reaching the playoffs with a respectable record.
Seven wins would be a good starting point he figured.
Then, something else happened.
“I’ll be honest, I’d be crazy to tell you I saw a 10-3 coming,” Coltharp said. “What happened last year was special. To see where we are now is a pretty big deal.”
The Red Devils hope to build on last year’s trip to the third-round of the state playoffs, a turnaround campaign that ended with a thud at traditional power Wallace-Rose Hill. Getting back to that point — and beyond — has been the focus since Coltharp’s team walked off the field in Teachey last November.
“We remember what losing feels like and don’t want to experience that again,” quarterback Blake Greene said. “We’ve been working hard and winning is all we’ve talked about.”
Boastful or not, Red Springs has earned the championship talk echoing throughout the program this summer. Coming off their best record since the 1987 season, the positive mentality is a far cry from what is has been in recent seasons. Prior to 2011, Red Springs hadn’t won a playoff game since 2006, owned a five-game losing streak to cross-town rival St. Pauls and was not consistently sending players to the collegiate level.
All that changed with a renewed attention to details, according to Coltharp.
Xavier McEachern blossomed into a future Division II running back while Ty Delainie garnered interest from several programs before signing with UNCP. Drayvon Fairley became the program’s spokesperson, an example of hard work and dedication. Lumberton native and former Pirate Ruffin McNeil offered Fairley a scholarship at an invite-only dinner in Greenville to play at East Carolina.
He proudly accepted.
The signings drew attention to the school of 700 and paired with the talent Red Springs has returning, helped establish the county’s only preseason state ranking.
Greene is one of two players tabbed preseason all-state with his favorite target, wide receiver and kick returner JuJu Brown, being the other. Greene’s the facilitator in Red Springs’ quick-strike offense and has the most starts under his belt of any returning quarterback in the area.
The junior dual-threat totaled 42 touchdowns and 3,146 yards from scrimmage last season but only talks about the four interceptions he threw in his team’s final game. A year wiser, Robeson County’s reigning offensive player of the year has learned that throwing an incompletion is sometimes the best case scenario while taking a sack isn’t always bad either.
“Everything is mental now for Blake when last season he relied on his athleticism most of the time,” Coltharp said. “He understands what we’re trying to do (on offense) and he’s become more and more polished each day in practice. The kid’s a hard worker with a great attitude.”
When given the opportunity, Coltharp agreed with the assessment that his team deserves its preseason laurels.
“It’s nice to know you have a chance to be really good,” he said. “Winning is pretty easy when you have talent but repeating takes character. We’ve got a great group, probably the best bunch of guys that I’ve coached.”
Summer practice has been split into halves, a first in Coltharp’s coaching career. While the offense walks through what Coltharp calls its “money” plays on one side of the field, the defense focuses on technique under defensive coordinator Ron Cook. Limiting turnovers and protecting against big plays has been a highlighted point all summer on Red Springs’ dry-erase board.
“Don’t get beat by Red Springs is still our mantra,” Coltharp said. “Mistakes bit us in the butt last season and when you give up long touchdowns against good teams, you get beat.”
A challenging non-conference schedule should test the Red Devils early. South Columbus, Sun Valley and Goldsboro all reached the playoffs last season and return a host of starters and offensive production. Coltharp says his team realizes conference titles and state championships aren’t won in August.
“As far as being the local favorites, we really just want to be 1-0 every week,” Coltharp said. “I know it’s coach speak, but I tell all of our guys it’s great to be on preseason lists and picked No. 1, but I’d rather be a part of those things when the season is over. That’s when we’ll really see just how far we’ve come as a football team.”