Stumbling out of the gate on the heels of its first losing season in six years, Purnell Swett plans on getting back to basics while upstart South Robeson — 2-2 after 16 straight losses — has its sights set on an upset bid.
“You can find ways to win and find ways to lose and right now we’re finding ways to lose,” Swett coach Mark Heil said before filing out of the fieldhouse to Wednesday’s practice. “At this point of the season, we shouldn’t use youth as an excuse. To me, it’s a matter of the players saying we’re not going to make anymore mistakes and beat ourselves. It’s time we start believing more in ourselves and make a stronger commitment to winning.”
Swett’s homecoming game sets up to be the perfect bounce-back opportunity for the Rams. The recent series between rivals hasn’t been close, with Swett taking the last three meetings by a combined score of 146-14. The Rams have posted consecutive shutouts in the series and allowed a single first down during last year’s tilt in Rowland.
As it appears, however, the Rams and Mustangs are heading in opposite directions with conference games kicking off in two weeks. Picked to finish last in the Three Rivers, South Robeson has looked anything but the league doormat it was supposed to be while Swett has struggled to find continuity and an identity on both sides of the football.
“We’re obviously the underdog every week because of our recent history until we start proving people different,” Roberson said. “I’ve got to get our guys’ confidence level up because we got kids that have taken a pretty good beating the last two years against Purnell. It’s up to me to show these guys they’re capable of winning.”
South Robeson captured back-t0-back victories in August with a combination of running back Deshawn Hamilton churning the clock and a stiff defense that’s especially poignant against the run. A similar recipe is designed for Friday’s game against an offense that has steadily improved since the opener after the addition of junior Andrew Hill.
Forcing the Rams into mistakes is a key element if South Robeson wants to celebrate in Pembroke. Swett is at the bottom of the county and Southeastern Conference this season with 20 giveaways, seven coming in its last home game against Hoggard.
“We approach each week the same around here,” Roberson said, shrugging off the contest’s rivalry implications. “We’re not making the Purnell Swett game any bigger than other games. I think it would be in our favor, though, to get the run game going and hope they help us out a little bit.”
Hill, a late-summer transfer from Fairmont, has 381 yards rushing in three games with three total touchdowns. When the Rams have moved the chains consistently, he’s been the catalyst. Roberson is familiar with Hill after watching him as a freshman during his time as a Swett assistant coach and game-planning against the dual-threat in last season’s Jamboree.
“He’s a complete player and one of the best athletes in the county, hands down,” Roberson said. “He can line up anywhere on the field and make an impact. It’s going to take a full team effort to stop him and we’re trying to get all 11 guys on defense to hit him.”
Getting off to a good start against the Mustangs is paramount for Swett.
The Rams’ 1-3 start, their worst mark since 2004, can be attributed to a lack of focus in the first half, the lead culprit in consecutive blowout losses. In the first eight minutes of last week’s loss at New Hanover, the Rams gave up a kick return touchdown, let a would-be interception slip through their fingers for a score and allowed a touchdown on a punt return.
Everything that could go wrong, went wrong according to Heil and that shouldn’t happen during the fourth week of the season. A dropped shotgun snap — a simple execution problem — led to another touchdown.
“I think South Robeson is a much-improved football team and we’re not taking them lightly,” Heil said. “But Hoggard and New Hanover were very good teams in comparison. New Hanover had huge skill people and looked like a junior college team. We’re getting behind (in games) and things have spiraled. We need not do stuff like that this week and focus on getting better as a team. We’re worried about us, not (South Robeson).”
Defensively, Swett has given up more big plays than usual, something Heil says his team is focused on cleaning up.
“I put the defense’s play on my shoulders exclusively,” Heil said. “I’ve changed our defense every week and that’s not like me. We’re going in with a plan against South Robeson and not changing anything about it. We’ll see how that works out.”
Despite flexing more depth at the skill positions and a bevy of size the Mustangs can’t match up front, Heil isn’t buying into the fact that — on paper — Friday’s game is an unequal contest. Swett has won 10 straight games against in-county teams, its last loss coming at Lumberton in 2008. At Big ‘Mo’, Swett holds a .727 winning percentage (24-9) since Heil began his second stint in Pembroke.
On the road, the Rams are 16-17 during that span.
“When I was here the first time in (1990), we were 11-2 and just barely beat South Robeson,” Heil said. “They had a heck of a team. There’s certainly a rivalry here, even if it’s a 4A and 1A deal. Jeremiah (Swett) coming over from South Robeson to play for us is only one of many things that adds fuel to the fire. It’ll be a good test and I’m ready to see how our guys respond.”