RAEFORD — What was the Southeastern Conference, a football power, has now turned up the level of competition as the newly formed Sandhills Athletic Conference with the addition of two Fayetteville area schools.
And Lumberton coach Mike Setzer is ready to take on the challenge.
“I’ve always been in football so it’s exciting. You want the kids to have the opportunity to play against the best and you want to have the opportunity to coach against the best,” he said. “That’s what this conference means. When you’re in this conference you get to poke your chest out a little bit because this is a big-boy conference.”
Coaches and select players from all eight teams gathered for the first time as a new conference at the Sandhills Athletic Conference football media day held at the Bayonet Golf Club at Puppy Creek on Sunday where predictions were levied out, rules were refreshed for the conference and teams had their last friendly look at each other before the season starts on Aug. 18.
The new-look conference features the same six teams from the former Southeastern Conference, but adds Jack Britt and Seventy-First this year to put two more teams in a mix that features recent powers like Scotland, Richmond and Pinecrest. Setzer said that this is what helps the top teams separate themselves from the stragglers, and is what football is all about.
“If you love the game, you should love the challenge,” Setzer said.
The Pirates’ senior cornerback Malik Cooper believes that the feel of the locker room echoes that of the head coach.
“Everybody is excited. You’ve just got to get in and put your nose in there and do what you can,” Cooper said. “I feel like there is more excitement level (in conference games). We like to look at all the games as the same, but as we all know, those mean a little bit more than the other games.”
With he believes is a tough football game week in and week out in conference play, Purnell Swett coach Jon Sherman has realized that now is the time to make sure his team is doing all it can to prepare itself. To him, after Labor Day the season picks up and doesn’t slow back down or get any easier.
“The challenges are always there in the conference. It’s just one of those things as a team where you’ve got to mentally survive week after week after week,” he said. “It’s eight weeks of having to play everyday, practice everyday. Staying healthy as a team. I think our boys like the challenge, they ask for the challenge.”
Scotland was picked as the top team in the coaches and media poll to win their seventh conference title in a row. Lumberon was picked to finish in a tie for fifth with Jack Britt by the coaches and sixth in the media poll. Purnell Swett was picked last by the coaches and seventh in the media poll.
“As I’ve found through the years, teams start colluding to try and beat you. It’s all fair, but it’s tough being the hunted. Would you want it any other way? I’d much rather be the one everybody is shooting for than one at the bottom trying to work our way up,” Scotland coach Richard Bailey said. “We have high expectations. No one else expects more out of us than we do. Anything other than winning the last game of the year is a disappointment.”
Richmond, Seventy-First and Pinecrest rounded out the top four in both polls, respectively.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.