ROWLAND — The sun rose on Wednesday and a very tired South Robeson football team was going through conditioning workouts and weight training. Much to the disbelief of many people, including some of the Mustangs’ players and coaches, had less than a month earlier.
Doubt had crept into the county football scene that the school would be a part of the consolidation plan, sending students to Lumberton, Fairmont and Purnell Swett this coming year. Tuesday’s decision by the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County to merge Rowland Middle School with South Robeson High School provided a collective exhale for the Rowland area.
“It’s been my home for three years and it looked like I was going to lose it my senior year and not get a chance to play with these boys again,” senior quarterback Tyler Locklear said. “When I heard the news, it was very exciting to me.”
The workout Wednesday morning brought 12 athletes out, more than triple the average attendance the team had in the two live workout weeks following the initial announcement on June 18 to consolidate the school.
Locklear had been one of those athletes that chose to skip practice.
“This summer I have been working and this is the first summer that I haven’t been out here,” he said. “Any other summer I’d have been out here all summer, but this year with the school closing I didn’t know where it was heading.”
First-year coach Mike Propst had been through a whirlwind since being approved to head the program in February, and said he had his doubts on the future at South Robeson. Propst made plans in case the worst scenario unfolded, and to his surprise, it didn’t on Tuesday night.
The new plan of the school is one that he sees could pay dividends for the program in the future, helping bridge the gap of incoming freshmen unsure of the transition and timing to play football the fall after their eighth-grade year.
“It does seem like a feasible plan and a doable plan,” Propst said. “The middle school kids will be on campus and they will get to see me and the staff. I think that will be very much a positive.”
But the future of South Robeson is still up in the air past this school year. Propst sees one way that his group can make a difference.
“I told the seniors that they can leave a legacy here and the school can stay open by the way they carry themselves and the way football does,” Propst said. “Football is the front porch of every high school in the state, I don’t care what anybody says. Typically how the football goes, if they go in a positive manner, then things at the school go in a positive way.”
Now the Mustangs find themselves behind the 8-ball as far as preparation for the season. Preseason practice begins in less than three weeks, with one more week open for workouts runs from next Monday to the following Friday. An increase in numbers, as well as collective conditioning of the group, is the main focus between now and the Aug. 23 season opener at Hoggard.
Conditioning will be a major factor come August with a small roster leading to players playing on both sides of the ball.
“We’ve just got to get in shape. That’s the biggest thing,” Propst said. “We’re going to have kids going both ways, so we have to make sure they are in shape so they can perform at a high level.”
Senior running backing Jamearos McLeod had been a regular at the workouts over the last month, and as a leader has seen an increase in his responsibilities go further than the practice field.
“It felt really good that more people were starting to come out because some of the people hadn’t been coming out because the school was closing, but we are going to try to get more of them out here to get this work in,” McLeod said. “We’ve got to get them out here to get in shape and hit the weight room to get stronger.”
The two seniors mentioned a change in the program’s culture with the new staff. After three straight losing seasons, the pair said there is a difference this offseason, including the first workout following the announcement the school will remain a high school.
“Today we went hard the whole time. Nobody was sitting around and playing. Everybody was taking things serious,” Locklear said. “They are all focused on the season.”
A myriad of lessons can be taught from this experience, but the way the South Robeson football team has fought through adversity is one that Propst hopes his team can channel this season, being one of the underdogs in the Three Rivers Conference.
“I know this isn’t a tragedy, but it was almost a closing of the school in a community that has been seen as a negative thing,” Propst said. “But I think it can be something they learn from, and also something us adults can learn from. It’s been tough for all of us, I’ve had a knot in my stomach for two months.”
That mentality has already struck a chord for the team’s leadership.
“I’m happy they are keeping it open so we can prove people wrong,” McLeod said.
Jonathan Bym | The Robesonian South Robeson football coach Mike Propst talks to his team following Wednesday’s workout. The Mustangs now look to make up for lost time after the school was decided to stay a high school on Tuesday.