LUMBERTON — As Robeson County prepares for another football season, expectations are high at some schools, but the powerhouses still reside outside of the county.
In coaches polls taken at the media days of the Southeastern and Three Rivers Conference, Scotland and Whiteville were selected to continue their dominance atop each league.
As for teams in Robeson County, Lumberton and Fairmont were the highest ranked teams in their leagues.
The Golden Tornadoes head into the season with high expectations as the 25th-ranked 2A school in the CarolinaPreps.com preseason rankings. With Julius Caulder returning at quarterback, it’s hard to argue with that ranking. If the Golden Tornadoes can improve defensively, the ceiling is high.
Mark Heil begins his first season as the Fairmont head coach, but his tenure in Robeson County is unmatched.
“It’s a different kind of football (in Robeson County) from the Pinecrest, Richmond and Scotland teams,” Heil said.
“Nobody gives Robeson County anything. If you want something here you’ve got to go out and earn it. That’s what makes Robeson County kids so tough. We’ve got to go out and earn it.”
For Heil, the attitude transcends his team.
“It’s the same all over (the county). We’ve got to go out and fight for what we want. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed coaching these kids. They’re very straight up.”
For Lumberton — picked to finish third in the SEC — the year starts with unanswered questions under center and in the backfield. The Pirates lost SEC Player of the Year Josh Sheridan — currently at UNCP — and have a 13-year-old freshman starting at quarterback this season in Braylon Grice.
Troy Mitchell is expected the fill the void left by Sheridan, and he has one of the biggest offensive lines in the SEC to block for him, led by Pete Townsend.
As for taking that next step, Lumberton coach Mike Setzer believes it’s a process for Robeson County teams.
“In Robeson County all the coaches seem to care about their teams,” Setzer said. “What we’re trying to do is take notes from the guys up the road. It’s funny, we share a lot of things among us coaches. We’re trying to catch up with what some other teams in the state and in South Carolina are doing.”
Ron Cook has made great strides heading into his second season as the head man at Red Springs. Cook’s team is a dark horse in the Three Rivers Conference and has looked impressive — both in size and talent — this preseason.
Cook is confident his team can battle with the best.
“Who can stay healthy matters a lot,” he said. “I think we can play with anybody. It comes down to who’s going to be able to play in the fourth quarter like they did in the first. Secondly, who’s going to be able to run the ball. That helps a lot on defense, keeping the ball.”
St. Pauls is led by the most experienced quarterback in the county in Cody McKenna. Coach Trey Sasser has said repeatedly that his relationship with McKenna only helps the Bulldogs.
For South Robeson and Purnell Swett, it’s a year of turnaround filled with inexperience. The Rams lost 20 seniors from last season’s squad and welcome a new head coach in Jon Sherman. The Mustangs are coming off a playoff appearance in Clay Jernigan’s first season, but lost 15 seniors from last year’s squad. Both are expected to take their lumps this season, but remain competitive in their conferences.
For Setzer, the opportunity to play against great competition week-in and week-out serves as a great measuring stick for teams around the county.
“We’re really happy about competing with great teams, seeing how they do things,” he said.
“It helps our kids and communities see what it takes to get our programs to the upper echelon. We’re all one trying to get to the next level.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.