First Posted: 10/22/2010
WINSTON-SALEM From scribbling his name on footballs at the Shrine Bowl to being the defensive anchor of Winston-Salem State’s incoming freshman class, Jermaine Kesler has been productive with his time the last 10 months.
The former Lumberton standout worked out this summer alongside Jalaquon McNeill, his close friend and high school teammate, lifting at home and inside WSSU’s weightroom. Kesler and McNeill are two of four former Pirates who prepared, in advance, for Saturday’s game against The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
The duo spurned UNCP in February to sign with Connell Maynor’s up-start Rams, a decision that has worked out well for both players. Kesler has seen action in six games this season along the defensive line while McNeill plays extensively on special teams and sparingly at linebacker.
“Those guys are playing now because they work so hard,” Lumberton coach Mike Brill said.
Maurice Lewis and Larry Hearn, two key players during the Pirates’ 2009 postseason run, have participated in games for WSSU but have not accumulated any statistics.
Kesler and McNeill managed one of the Southeastern Conference’s stiffest defenses and were the cornerstone of Brill’s 4-3 scheme over the last two years in Robeson County, leading the Pirates to the most wins (16) during a two-year span in 20 seasons.
“All four guys that went here bought into my system and made us better,” Brill said. “They were good kids, hard workers and had hearts beyond belief.”
In preparation for tonight’s battle against Richmond, Brill was shocked at the amount of stops in last season’s game accumulated by the former Shrine Bowler and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
“On tape, Jermaine and JoJo dominated,” Brill said. “I never seen a nose tackle make 13 tackles. JoJo had 18. I’m amazed at the impact those two had in that game. They gave us a chance to win.”
Kesler and McNeill were not made available by WSSU for comment.
The Braves (5-2) are looking to go 2-0 against teams from the CIAA, a football conference UNCP has been in recent talks of joining. Pete Shinnick’s group has struggled on the road this season, losing two of four contests, including a 26-13 setback at Webber International that crippled the Braves’ shot at the postseason.
“I did not foresee some of the problems we have had away from home,” Shinnick said. “I think when you look at each scenario individually, you can see some of the mistakes. I am a little surprised at our performance.”
Shinnick stopped short of calling Saturday a must-win, but the Braves’ fifth-year coach understands the importance of his team’s first-ever battle with the Rams.
“It never changes in Division II since every game is important,” Shinnick said. “You have to do well down the stretch and I think we’re in a position to do that. Our guys have worked hard to be in this position and it should be a pretty neat environment up there Saturday.”
Statistically, UNCP has the top defense in the country, allowing just under 211 yards per game. The secondary equally tough at No. 4 has given up five touchdown passes in seven games and has picked off 11 passes. The Braves are allowing 12.7 points per game. WSSU is leading the CIAA in scoring at 40.4 per contest.
Which unit will break?
“Stats are one thing. Playing a good team is another,” Shinnick said. “We have had a strong defense the last three years. It’s a matter of guys being where they need to be, playing as physical as they need to play and flying around to the football.”
The Braves return home after the trip to Winston-Salem where they’ve won 14 consecutive games for the final two games of the regular season.
“We had to finish 3-0 at the end of last season to reach our goal of making the playoffs,” Shinnick said. “Our guys know what they have to do.”