PEMBROKE — When the first preliminary NCHSAA state football playoff brackets came out just before noon on Saturday, it looked like Purnell Swett was not going to be among the 48 4A teams to play for a state championship.
Then the NCHSAA realized it had not used the most up-to-date information and added the Rams in as one of the last seeds included in the brackets, after coach Jon Sherman, and several other coaches across the state, gave the committee a call. The Rams were at No. 48 in the MaxPreps rankings the week before beating Lumberton and seemingly sealing its fate to the postseason, and something didn’t add up to the third-year coach.
“At first I was a little stunned, a little shocked. My wife had to calm me down, but then they worked it out and we got in,” he said. “When I looked at the teams on the brackets, and everybody deserves a chance to be in the playoffs, I thought there were some teams above us that weren’t in the same rank we should be in as far as rank and wins as far as conference. I guess they did a readjustment and for us it’s good, but for the guys that got bumped out I feel bad for them.”
Purnell Swett (5-6) travels to Heritage (10-1) tomorrow for the first round of the state playoffs, after essentially playing two playoff games in a row against Hoke and Lumberton to secure the spot in the postseason. That mentality of fighting with their backs against the wall is what Sherman is trying to get the Rams to replicate in the win-or-go-home postseason.
“Last Friday, we went up and they came back and it came down to the last play of the game really. Our kids kept fighting and they wanted it and were intense with it,” he said. “If they come with that intensity every game, I think we are going to be in games. What we’ve got to figure out is that mentality every game.”
Heritage has been ranked in the North Carolina AP top 10 football poll for the entire season, coming in at No. 6 in the final rankings this week, and is following its first loss of the season to Wake Forest to close the regular season.
For No. 11-seeded Purnell Swett, going up against a powerful team like No. 6 seed Heritage is not a new feeling, having gone through the likes of Scotland, Richmond and Seventy-First in Sandhills Athletic Conference play, and Hoggard in the non-conference.
“We’re in the best conference in the state so its a test. We’re used to this. We’re used to the same thing every week,” Sherman said. “It’s one of those things where we are not ‘Oh my gosh, here we go.’ It’s just like it’s another week.”
Heritage is in that same category as the Sandhills Athletic Conference powers, according to Sherman and the Huskies have the talented skill players and a defensive front to match. The Rams are treating this just like another one of its conference games.
Heritage quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, a Duke commit, has passed for over 2,100 yards and 24 touchdowns and running back Ricky Person, a N.C. State commit, has rushed for 1,936 yards and 32 touchdowns to power its offense. Defensive end Joseph Boletepeli and linebacker Drake Thomas are highly touted recruits with several Division I offers and anchor the defensive front.
“Their defensive front is awesome. They’ve got some guys that are Division I guys,” Sherman said. “They’re talented, that’s what we’ve told the kids that we’ve played Scotland, Richmond and Seventy-First and this team is the same mold. They’re 10-1 for a reason.”
Purnell Swett quarterback and receiver combo Luke Oxendine and Chandler Brayboy are coming off some of their best outings of the year. Oxendine passed for a career-high 315 yards and three touchdowns, and Brayboy topped the 1,000 yard receiving mark with 137 yards against Lumberton.
The Rams enter the game looking for their first playoff win since 2010.
Red Springs at Salisbury
The Red Devils enter the postseason on a roll, and that is just how coach Lawrence Ches likes it.
“It’s happened exactly like we told them we wanted it to happen,” he said. “We took our lumps earlier and played some tough teams. That prepared us well. We knew we would have a little stretch where we had to get good or go home and we are trying to stay here as long as possible.”
No. 11 seed Red Springs travels to No. 6 seed Salisbury and brings with it a three-game winning streak with it. Ches compares this Salisbury team to the likes of St. Pauls, a team that Red Springs (8-3) topped 36-18 to close out the year.
“They’re athletic and remind me a lot of St. Pauls. They have an athletic quarterback that can run the option, two athletic, multi-threat backs and have a pretty vaunt special team,” Ches said. “They are well coached and seem like a hungry team.”
Salisbury (7-3), like Red Springs, is under the direction of a first-year coach Brian Hinson and finished third in the Central Carolina Conference behind West Davidson and Ledford, the two teams that handed the Hornets their only conference losses. Quarterback Griffin Myers and running backs Mike McLean and Raheim Walker.
The last playoff win for the Red Devils came in 2012.
St. Pauls at East Duplin
Despite seeing several run-heavy teams in Three Rivers Conference play, the Bulldogs have a new task ahead of them going up against No. 1 seed East Duplin.
Ernest King, coach of 16th-seeded St. Pauls, has coached the team to the postseason in his first two seasons and another tough draw awaits him.
“They’ve got a great running game and it’s amazing how good and how disciplined they are,” he said. “They execute their running game out of like eight different positions so it is hard to prepare for them. We try to keep it simple and play assignment football.”
St. Pauls (5-6) was one of the last teams in to the 2A state playoffs and East Duplin (11-0) has been a top-10 team in the state all season. The Panthers have five rushers with over 500 yards on the ground this year, led by Jalen Mitchell with 785 yards. On the defensive side, East Duplin has allowed less than 11 points per game this season.
Like Red Springs, the last playoff win for the Bulldogs came in 2012.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.