FAIRMONT — Fairmont High School had the feel of a family reunion on Monday with high school football coaches from the Three Rivers Conference gathered for the league’s annual media day.
The newly formed 10-team conference now includes a pair of familiar faces to the mix in East and West Bladen. Both of those schools competed against Robeson and Columbus County squads a few years back as part of the Southeastern and Waccamaw conferences.
“I always liked it. There were some good rivalries formed back in the day,” said East Bladen coach Robby Priest. “Revisiting that this season will be a little blast from the past. I just look forward to having fun before the game, having fun during the game and after the game, I hope.”
South Robeson coach Clay Jernigan echoed Priest’s remarks, adding that travel within the conference is a major plus with the expansion.
“It makes our conference better and it cuts back on traveling,” Jernigan said. “That’s one thing I like about it. … the kids don’t have to stay out on the road a lot. Bladen County, Columbus County, Robeson County, there could be some good rivalries coming out of it with a lot of money to be made.”
Ernest King, who is entering his second season at St. Pauls, hopes the expansion will help the league earn more respect throughout the region.
“It makes the conference even more competitive. A lot of people don’t respect what we do in our conference,” King said. “Coming from Cumberland County, you don’t realize how strong 1A and 2A football is until you get down here.”
Kevin Inman is set to begin his first season as the head coach at Fairmont, but he’s familiar with the “top-to-bottom” strength of the TRC.
“It’s exciting because it’s basically a mini-SEC and I think every coach knows that,” Inman said. “Every game counts and you can’t look past one team, especially with the heavyweight hitters like Whiteville, South Columbus, St. Pauls and East Bladen.”
With seven 2-A teams and a trio of 1-A teams, King and Red Springs coach Lawrence Ches acknowledged the added difficulty of advancing to postseason play.
“It just makes your schedule less flexible. It makes scheduling non-conference games a very strategic deal, trying to rack up wins to get a playoff berth,” said Ches, who is in his first season as coach of the Red Devils.
King added: “They made it more difficult to get to the playoffs. You want to hope that you don’t get beat up because it’s going to be a dog fight every night. But that’s what you love about football, going out and preparing for it.”
The Eagles and Stallions enter the year as the favorites to win the conference, according to a preseason coaches poll, with each team receiving a trio of first-place votes.
South Columbus, ranked No. 18 in the CarolinaPreps.com preseason 2-A power rankings, earned one more point than East Bladen, which comes in at No. 19 in the rankings.
The Stallions got back to their tradition of excellence last season in their first year under Russell Dove, winning the TRC championship and advancing to the 2-A Eastern Regional Championship. Dove’s squad earned a 75-42 win over Fairmont in the second round and used a 2-point conversion to beat East Bladen, 42-41, in the third round.
“It puts you in a different perspective. Last year, a lot of people didn’t think that we would be as successful as we were,” Dove said. “That bullseye on our back is going to be really tough. We’re not just getting a football game, we’re getting everybody’s best shot. Being up there with East (Bladen) and Whiteville, it’s going to be a free for all.
“I’ve been preaching that all summer — if you don’t want it, someone else does.”
St. Pauls, which was picked to finish fourth in the coaches poll behind South Columbus, East Bladen and Whiteville, enters the year with high expectations.
Dove pointed to Bulldogs, as well as Fairmont and Red Springs as some under-the-radar teams that could rise to the top like the Stallions did last season.
King, who continues to motivate his team by bringing up last season’s 35-34 home loss to the Stallions, feels his team is in a different situation this year.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody,” he said. “You work hard to get that respect, but you have to keep working hard to keep it. Our guys do have a chip on their shoulders. We have to talk about the things that went on last year with what caused us to lose certain games.
“We’ve gotten better so our expectations are a whole lot higher than they were last year. We want to try and win the conference, and make a run at the state championship. That’s always our goal.”
Red Springs was picked to finish fifth in the coaches poll, followed by Fairmont, West Bladen, South Robeson, East Columbus and West Columbus.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.