For weeks now, the Three Rivers Conference opener for both teams has been circled as Robeson County’s Game of the Year, a contest pitting two hurry-up offenses headlined by number of all-state candidates on the field for both teams. An expected overflow crowd was going to witness a touchdown-for-touchdown battle similar to last year’s memorable overtime tilt between the Red Devils and Golden Tornadoes.
Instead, what we’re likely getting is steadily-improving St. Pauls hoping to capture its sixth straight win against Red Springs’ second-team offense, a unit decimated by injuries to its two top stars. It’ll be up to team trainers to determine Blake Greene and JuJu Brown’s availability Friday night, two of the county’s best athletes.
Without Greene, Red Springs’ offense loses its commander of the huddle, a junior whose made 22 consecutive starts at quarterback. Without Brown, the Red Devils run out of jet fuel and miss a big-play threat.
The showcase then turns to the visitors who boast an offense no team has matched this season. Running back Shawn Williams has scored more touchdowns by himself — 15 — than any player in the conference and is the league’s only 1,000-yard rusher at this point.
6. South Robeson (2-3, PR: 5): It’s tough to drop the Mustangs down a spot after an idle week, but when another team ranked behind you wins, that’s usually what happens. It's been a long time since South Robeson beat someone in conference play, but that'll change over the next month for this year's group. When will that win come? It's hard to say. The Mustangs' ball-control offense will go up against a number of physical defenses over the next few games and may not have the success it had during the early portion of the season.
5. Purnell Swett (2-3, PR: 4): Chances are, you'll see a few new wrinkles in Purnell Swett's offense Friday night in Laurinburg given that Mark Heil has spent the last 10 days prepping for the Rams' Southeastern Conference opener with the Scots. Swett arguably gave Scotland one of its toughest fights during last season's state title run, trailing by single digits late in the third quarter in Pembroke. Both teams are vastly different this fall, but Swett always seems to perform well against quality opponents. Scotland's been tested up front a handful of times thus far, passing the tests with flying colors. A 3-2 finish in league play would alleviate some of the pressure off the Swett sideline and persuade fans to be excited again for Ram football.
4. Fairmont (3-3, PR: 6): Fairmont's back and fully-loaded according to senior defensive end Luke Hunt who returned to practice this week after missing the last two games — along with three other players — for fighting in a previous contest against Lake View, S.C. Since that demoralizing loss, the Golden Tornadoes have split a pair of games and performed very different in both. Fairmont fell apart against Wilmington Ashley before recovering in the second half to beat Jones last week. James Atkinson still has plenty of talent at his disposal and he's got a group of players that haven't lost a conference game in two years. Until someone knocks Fairmont off its thrown, the Golden Tornadoes can still label themselves league champs despite a rollercoaster campaign.
3. Red Springs (3-3, PR: 3): Faced with adversity, how will Red Springs respond? That's what second-year coach George Coltharp is preaching to his kids this week in the wake of injuries to the Red Devils' two best players, JuJu Brown and Blake Greene. Considered by most as the Three Rivers Conference favorite, a 3-3 record thus far is surprising to some, but not Coltharp. "We've played some good teams in those three losses and just haven't done the necessary things it takes to win. It's that simple." Cleaning up the mistakes is paramount this week against St. Pauls, a program with its eye set on it own conference title shot.
2. St. Pauls (5-1, PR: 2): The Bulldogs aren’t battle-tested, but this week’s game will go a long way in indicating whether or not St. Pauls has the proper tools to win its first Three Rivers Conference championship. Right now, defense is the only issue concerning this team's long-term success. The Bulldogs have made more plays than any competitor on special teams and have an offense comparable to any hurry-up spread in the state. Head coach Trey Sasser says he's confidence in his squad's defensive game plan heading into this week's pivotal road game and says playing assignment football is the key to stopping an offense as potent as Red Springs' attack.
1. Lumberton (4-1, PR: 1): With two weeks of prep time and an opportunity to heal, the Pirates should go into Friday's game at Pinecrest as healthy as they've been all year. Hopefully, Daniel Robinson took as many ice baths as needed for a body that was battered and beaten during non-conference play. He's rushed for the second-most yards in the county against 4A defensive lines geared at stopping the run. Robinson's production as well as Lumberton's team defense will determine the Pirates' finish in the SEC. A challenging three-game gauntlet featuring two ranked opponents begins next week against unbeaten Hoke.