LUMBERTON — It might be preseason rankings, but the Lumberton and Purnell Swett wrestling teams want to live up to the hype that has been put on their teams.
In the North Carolina East regional preseason rankings, the Pirates and Rams were picked third and fourth respectively. Both coaches know that the preseason label comes from work in the offseason that has featured several of their wrestlers competing in national tournaments all over the country.
“I’ve got a couple guys ranked in the preseason rankings, we’ve done a lot in the offseason so we’ve kind of prepared ourselves to be in the position we are right now,” Lumberton coach Jamie Bell said. “We’ve got a really good junior class and some really solid seniors that are leaders this year so I’m excited to see what we are going to do.”
Lumberton is coming off a season where it placed five wrestlers at states and its coach was named conference coach of the year. Last season, the Pirates finished 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play, but now a new conference with Seventy-First and regional power Jack Britt joins the league. That has not changed Lumberton’s approach.
“As always, I’m always shooting for first place. That’s my mentality,” Bell said. “New teams aren’t going to change that for me. It’s just some new people we are going to have to beat.”
Leading the Pirates this season will be an experience upperclassmen unit led by senior Noah Taylor and senior Yakemiean Johnson, who both qualified for the state tournament last year. Sincere Johnson, Tray Regan and Edward Brock are three juniors are also expected to have big seasons.
“They’ve had some solid wrestling in the offseason and they are coming back in,” Bell said. “They’ve all got this spotlight on them and we are kind of excited to see these guys.”
The team picked to finish right behind the Pirates, Purnell Swett, also has its eyes set on the same goals as their cross-county rivals. After injuries plagued the Rams last year, a healthy, experienced team returns for coach Nicky Barnes.
“If we keep everybody safe, we should be able to do big things. We’re getting some recognition, Lumberton is getting some recognition too, so all the hard work we’ve put in during the offseason is going to really show this year,” he said. “We both broke top 10 and we both have the drive to take top two in the conference.”
Much of the roster has been four-year starters for the program. Seniors William Deese, Jastan Simmons, Rommie McNeill, Jonathan Locklear, Ronald McNeill and Millard Locklear all return this year for a team that fell short of expectations last year due to injuries. Millard Locklear was lost for the year after tearing his ACL early in the season and Deese broke his elbow at regionals and was on the cusp of advancing to states.
“They’ve been doing it since freshman year. They grew up fast,” Barnes said. “We’ve got a lot of potential to bring almost a full lineup to the state tournament. It’s all about keeping them healthy and focused.”
Amid all the injuries was Rommie and Ronald McNeill, brothers who qualified for the state tournament last year. Rommie was the runner up in the 138-pound division and has used the close call to fuel his this summer competing at the national level.
“I worked really hard last year, but I guess I didn’t have that extra push. This year, I’m going to try and get it,” he said. “That way when I get to the finals I know I worked hard enough for it.”
With the preseason rankings, Barnes already has his ideal scenario for the postseason for the two 4A teams.
“I think you should see both of us in the conference finals and then hopefully get bracketed on opposites sides because I would love to see a Robeson County regional final,” Barnes said.
St. Pauls is coming off back-to-back conference titles over their lone conference opponent Clinton, and is looking to do more this year, including better individual performances at the state tournament. To do so, the Bulldogs will have to work around their youth.
“They’ve got a lot of exuberance, but not much experience,” St. Pauls Coach Tony McMillian said. “Half of them have experience and the other half have not. …
As a sophomore last year, Joseph Layne qualified for the state tournament and now McMillian sees the likes of sophomore Damien Ortiz, junior Harry Locklear and sophomore Gerette Jackson joining him at the state tournament this spring.
“He’s going to be a team leader I’m sure,” McMillian said of Layne. “I’m trying to get that AB mentality to rub off on the kids. Hopefully he can take three or four more with him to states this year.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.