With the new season comes a new batch of teams, but how do they all stack up? These are The Robesonian’s Robeson County Power Rankings, compiled by Scott Schlaufman and Caleb Burggraaf. In preseason form, these rankings are based on returning talent, last season’s success and projected conference finish and during the season a variety of factors are reflected in the rankings including strength of schedule, quality wins, talent on offense and defense and a personal eye tests from both practices and games.
6. South Robeson Mustangs
Opener: today vs. West Bladen
Analysis: Last year was a benchmark for the Mustangs, who went 8-6 overall, posting the team’s first winning season since 2002 and making a run to the third round of the playoffs. The bulk of that success was from the now-graduated duo of Juan Ellerbe and Andrew Smith, who had more than 2,600 yards rushing between them. They’re gone, as is coach Stephen Roberson, who took the head job at Westover.
The remaining pieces from that team are in the hands of journeyman Clay Jernigan, who has brought his father on as one of his assistants and will continue to keep the ball in the hands of running backs. The Mustangs will have plenty of size on the line, the question is whether or not they can find the quickness to match it.
5. Red Springs Red Devils
Opener: today at White Oak
Analysis: Playing as both quarterback and one of his team’s top safeties, there was hardly a player that impacted the Red Springs program more than Blake Greene. He’s gone now, having graduated and moved on to the college level, and very few of the players he had success with remain.
Instead, the team had to hire a new coach over the summer and has had to implement a new offense that isn’t built around just one player. The saving grace is that new head coach Ron Cook had previously served as defensive coordinator at the school, giving him both players that he knows and a familiar defensive scheme. It’ll be a homecoming for both Cook and offensive coordinator Lawrence Ches, but after a late start in a competitive conference, it won’t be a walk in the park.
4. Fairmont Golden Tornadoes
Opener: today at East Bladen
Analysis: There was no team that lost more players within the conference than Fairmont, which graduated 23 seniors including Jarrod Neal, who was the base of the Golden Tornadoes’ prolific air raid offense in the team’s first year under Randy Ragland. There will be a much younger team taking the field, but it should pay off as the base group will gets two seasons to play together at the varsity level.
The game plan will remain the same, with Ragland hoping to limitthe run. Julius Caulder will take the helm at quarterback, working behind an experienced line with Shyheim Hines and Shykeim Lambert as his top targets. If the three are skill players are clicking, Fairmont could turn some heads, but there may be some growing pains as well.
3. Lumberton Pirates
Opener: today vs. Douglas Byrd
Analysis: There are tough seasons and then there’s what Lumberton went through year. Despite having plenty of talent, there was limited stability within the program as injuries mounted and a midseason coaching change garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Pirates had one win, which wasn’t helped by one of the county’s toughest schedules.
Though the strength in schedule remains, new coach Mike Setzer and his coaching staff have worked to instill a new excitement into the program and few players left despite the rough waters. Defensive coordinator Garron Warwick spent the offseason working the team in the weight room and the Pirates have plenty of experience at the right places, including at quarterback and running back with Auston Foley and Josh Sheridan, and in the backfield with Travis Suggs.
2. Purnell Swett Rams
Opener: today at Pine Forest
Analysis: Mark Heil is looking to bring a new culture to Purnell Swett, as the Rams have only been able to win a total of 10 games the past three seasons. The Rams will look to returning quarterback Thristian Lowry to lead an offensive attack built around a steady run and pass mix. The defense will be anchored by a returning secondary that didn’t lose many athletes.
The Rams’ weakness could be their offensive and defensive lines, where the team is replacing several key veterans, and has a lot of young players backing up the veterans they do have. If the line develops and can give Lowry time, the Rams could be a contender in the SEC, if not, it could be another long year for Purnell Swett.
1. St. Pauls Bulldogs
Opener: today at Gray’s Creek
Analysis: The Bulldogs enter this season with limited hype, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The team played the role of a dark horse last year in the Three Rivers Conference, starting the season with a new offensive tandem at quarterback and running back, and limited hype compared to opponents including Red Springs and Whiteville. Trey Sasser’s squad came through when it needed to, beating Fairmont and South Columbus, and staying within four points of the Wolfpack to finish third in the conference.
Sasser lost 18 players from last season, largely to graduation, and again has a new crew in the backfield but is one of the few veteran coaches in a conference that had a high turnover rate, both in coaches and in players. Are the Bulldogs as strong as they’ve been? Probably not, but if history is any indication, they’ll stay in the hunt for a conference title.