Tonight’s Three Rivers Conference showdown pitting Robeson County front-runners Fairmont and St. Pauls places the spotlight on the home team, a Bulldogs squad with its sights set on snapping the Golden Tornadoes’ 31-game league winning streak.
The two programs have combined for sixteen straight wins since each suffered losses in the Shootout and each feels it has the depth and talent for a deep postseason run.
This is what makes the marquee cross-town rivalry — and biggest local game of the season — so invigorating.
“Streaks are made to be broken,” St. Pauls coach Travis Lemanski said before Monday’s practice. “We feel like we’ve closed the gap considerably since I first started here, but it’s time to go out and prove it. We won’t be satisfied with just getting to this point.”
Rarely do coaches rarely put extra emphasis on regular season games, but this could be St. Pauls’ only shot at center stage in uncharted waters according to Lemanksi. It’s been more than a decade since the Bulldogs (11-5, 3-0) have been six games over .500 this late in the season with a legitimate chance at capturing a conference title.
Those 15 minutes of fame could dry up quickly however should Fairmont (14-3, 3-0) get off to a hot start with the most productive transition game in the conference led by top scorers Kwinton Hinson and Shemar Barfield. Hinson is the son of former Fairmont star Wesley Hinson who helped the program capture a state championship in 1994 against West Caldwell. One of West Caldwell’s top players that season was Mike Setzer, the father of current St. Pauls forward Kane Banner. Banner and Hinson will be matched up against each other in the starting lineups tonight nearly 20 years after their predecessor’s toe-to-toe meeting for the title.
“It’s a local rivalry that means something and even though all the players are friends who hang out on the weekends and stuff, they want to win as bad as the coaches do,” Lemanksi said. “Other than a state playoff game, this is the most meaningful one I’ve coached here at St. Pauls. They have a size advantage in the post, but I like our matchups. Fairmont beats people with their speed and quickness, but we’ve got some players who can do the same.”
For veteran Fairmont coach Michael Baker, being on the opposite end of the hype meter comes with the territory. The Golden Tornadoes have coasted to consecutive conference titles against little to no adversity, winning 29 of their last 31 games against league opponents by double digits.
Fairmont has won 11 straight against St. Pauls coming by an average of 32 points. While ranked No. 1 in the state during the 2010-11 season, the Golden Tornadoes recorded three wins over the Bulldogs by at least 34 points. Baker doesn’t expect a blowout tonight and says he’s noticed how well St. Pauls is starting to gel and play as a team.
The Bulldogs’ last win in the series came in February 2007.
“We know teams are going to play their best to try and beat us and that’s expected,” Baker said. “We’ve prepared just as hard for this game as we have any other. Our goal is to finish 10-0 in conference every year so there’s no question about who is the conference champion.”
During his team’s current 10-game streak, Baker says Fairmont has developed an identity at the offensive end, something it didn’t have during an up-and-down start to the season. Starters seem to be in rhythm while bench production in several areas has increased substantially.
“We’ve done a good job of finding out spots and understanding our roles,” Baker said. “You can’t have a bunch of scorers and expect to be successful. You have to have rebounders, hustle guys and floor leaders. Jackie (Oxendine) and Jarrod Neal have stepped up as floor leaders.”
School officials have campaigned for a ‘white-out’ since last week and encourage all St. Pauls students and fans to wear white t-shirts to the game.
“We’re trying to get as many fans behind us as possible to pack the gym and be loud,” Lemanski said. “They’re the reigning champs and I think our school is pretty excited about the opportunity to beat a great team. We know we’ll have our hands full, we just have to take it from them.”