RED SPRINGS — It’s rivalry week, enough said, right?
It seems both Red Springs (7-3, 5-3 TRC) and St. Pauls (5-5, 5-3 TRC) have different views on how they approach this matchup, but they have one common view when you boil it down — playoffs. The Red Devils seem to be a lock for the postseason and would like to get a favorable matchup with another win, but a playoff bid is no guarantee for the Bulldogs if they lose.
Add on top of everything that the Robeson County offensive and defensive players of the year from last season will face off on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, making this meeting the epicenter of high school football this week in the county.
“I want the kids to be focused on the game. The opponent is arbitrary. The game is what matters and we’ve got to worry about us,” said Red Springs coach Lawrence Ches. “We have got to improve on our performance last week and prepare for the playoffs. Let everyone else worry about the rivalry.”
The first-year coach is downplaying the rivalry and up-playing the task at hand, while in St. Pauls coach Ernest King knows the emotional weight this game carries. Especially after what the Bulldogs did last year going in and pulling off the second-half comeback.
“They looked at what we did last week when we came to their place and they are going to turn around and spoil our senior night,” he said. “Like I told my seniors, you don’t want to lose senior night. You always want to win your last home game.”
Leading that group of seniors is quarterback Noah Wheeler, the offensive player of the year last year, who comes in on a tear with 21 touchdowns in the last six games as the playbook as been worked around to cater for the running threats the Bulldogs have. Wheeler said their run game is hard to stop, but sometimes the Bulldogs get in their own way when manufacturing offense.
“We kill ourselves if anything. They are going to go out there and play their game and we are going to play ours, but at the end of the day we are going to come out on top. It’s our rivals,” he said.“There’s a lot on the line because we want the playoffs. It’s win-or-go-home pretty much. As far as a rivalry, it’s just another game.”
Going opposite Wheeler and the Bulldogs is reigning defensive player of the year Jerome Bass and the Red Springs defense coming off its third shutout of the season against West Columbus. Bass has totaled over 110 tackles and more than 15 tackles for loss this year, looking to follow up his honor from last season. Now the focus turns to the player wearing the St. Pauls No. 2 jersey and keeping him in check.
“It’s going to be a big game. Noah is really talented and he’s really skilled,” the senior linebacker said. “You can tell he’s been working on his craft and getting better everyday. He’s more well-rounded as a player. He can run the ball incredibly and he can throw it. He’s that dual-threat that you’ve got to watch out for.”
Sitting at No. 54 in the MaxPreps rankings, St. Pauls is treading on thin ice to make the top 64, but King has liked what he has seen from his team knowing their season is potentially on the line.
“We had a more focused practice this week knowing that this is an opportunity for us to get into the playoffs,” he said. “The excitement has been a whole lot better than it has been in the past with the kids out from injury. They know this is a big game for us.”
To go along with Wheeler carrying a big load running the ball, the Bulldogs’ offensive line has led the way for running backs Caleb Inman and Marqueise Coleman this season to have big runs and big games. The trenches is where Ches sees the game being won.
“We’re just trying to play better than we did last week. St. Pauls is a very tough team, Ernest King is a very good coach and he’s going to have a very tough scheme, Noah Wheeler is a phenomenal athlete. It’s the next game on the schedule,” Ches said. “Defensively, they are very scrappy and they move around so much. It’s going to be hard to maintain our blocks. That’s going to be key to the game, whoever wins the line of scrimmage.”
Red Springs’ offense, along with the power running of Bass, is coming off a solid outing from Lee McLean with 165 yards an two touchdowns, while sophomore quarterback Denym McKeithan threw for two more scores.
“Their running back’s a good one. Their quarterback is more athletic and plays within the system,” King said. “They play a whole lot more focused football and seem a lot more disciplined than they were last year.”
Lumberton at Purnell Swett
There’s a lot on the line for the Rams as they look to close the season and keep their playoff bubble in tact, but Lumberton has scored well against several teams in the Sandhills Athletic Conference and has a chance to play spoiler in the matchup. Sixth place in the conference is up for grabs against Purnell Swett (4-6, 1-5 SAC) and the Pirates (2-8, 1-5 SAC) as well as the usual bragging rights among the two teams.
Lumberton has won the last five games in the series, with an average margin of victory in the span of 22 points. Both teams bring offenses that average more than 20 points per game into this meeting, and will require the opposing defenses to step up better than they had in recent weeks. In conference play, both teams have allowed virtually the same points on average to their opponents, approximately 40 points per game.
The Rams’ defense will look to slow down Lumberton quarterback Braylan Grice, who has accounted for 2,510 yards combined rushing and passing and 27 touchdowns. Lumberton receiver Kwashek Breeden has been Grice’s top target and hauled in 811 yards and six touchdowns. Purnell Swett quarterback Luke Oxendine leads the conference in passing yards with 1,749 and has 23 touchdowns, to go along with weapons around him like receiver Chandler Brayboy, with 913 receiving yards, and a stable of three running backs.
South Robeson at Fairmont
Another sixth-place battle among two Robeson County teams happens as South Robeson (3-7, 3-5 TRC) travels to Fairmont (4-6, 3-5 TRC) for final tuneup before the playoffs for the Mustangs. The winner takes sixth place in the conference behind St. Pauls and Red Springs in the standings. South Robeson hasn’t beaten Fairmont on the gridiron since the 2003 season.
In recent weeks, Fairmont has struggled to stop the run, a good sign for the Wing-T running Mustangs that have occasionally worked out of the shotgun this season. Jamearos McLeod and Darrius Brown had touchdowns last week against East Bladen, and have Darius Wright also that has emerged as one of the top running backs in the county.
The Golden Tornadoes look to get their offense back on track after a 24-point outing against East Columbus and 12 points the week prior against Red Springs. Quarterback Derrick Arnette has thrown for 2,127 yards this season and 19 touchdowns, and has receiver Jordan Waters on the cusp of breaking the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second year in a row as he sits with 915 yards.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.