FAIRMONT — As the Three Rivers Conference football coaches gathered Thursday at Fairmont High School for the conference’s annual media day, one thing was clear — Whiteville is still the team to beat.
The defending champions enter the season as a young group, but Luke Little’s squad is still loaded with talent.
“We’ve only got 10 seniors, the good thing is all of them have played for us, all of them are starters,” said Little, whose team went undefeated in conference play last season. “As far as being young, it’s probably the most athletic team I’ve had since I’ve been at Whiteville. (We’re) definitely faster, the fastest team we’ve had.”
Among the returners for the Wolfpack are Andrew Powell, the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, and four all-conference performers in Nate Powell, Garrett Wilson, Raqwon McAllister and quarterback Nydir Carr.
Whiteville enters the season as the fourth-ranked 1A team in the CarolinaPreps.com preseason poll. The team posted an 11-3 record last season, losing in the third round of the playoffs to Swain County.
“They’re young, but they’re athletes,” Little said. “If they dig a little deeper it could be a special group.”
Among the teams trying to knock Whiteville off the pedastal is Fairmont, who enters the season as the 25th-ranked 2A team in the CarolinaPreps.com preseason poll.
The Golden Tornadoes were 5-2 in conference last season, and enter this season under a new head coach in Mark Heil.
“There’s some potential there,” Heil said. “I think they just need to toughen up mentally. We’ve got a great conference with some good football teams. Whiteville is a traditional powerhouse.”
Fairmont will have some new faces at key skill positions, but it returns quarterback Julius Caulder — the Robeson County Heisman last season.
St. Pauls will have a senior-laden roster, led by quarterback Cody McKenna and all-purpose player Tim Billinger. The Bulldogs will look to improve on a 5-7 record last season.
“It’s up to them where they finish,” St. Pauls coach Trey Sasser said. “We have some pieces…. We’re improved from where we were last year. (Our) quarterback returning takes a lot off a coach’s mind.”
Ron Cook at Red Springs and Clay Jernigan at South Robeson will begin their second seasons in the conference.
Cook returns a squad led by Deondre Hallman, Ronald Alexander and Eric Graham. The Red Devils won three of their last four games to finish 4-3 in the conference, earning a playoff berth in Cook’s first season.
Jernigan also helped the Mustangs gallop into the playoffs despite a 2-5 record in conference.
Both were familiar with the conference prior to becoming head coaches, but each have a better knowledge of what to expect heading into this season.
“Every day you have to come prepared to play,” Cook said.
“It’s a really good conference. You’ve got to be prepared physically, mentally. Once you get hit in the mouth, how are you going to respond? You have to be prepared to compete with the likes of Whiteville.”
Jernigan grew up playing in what was then the Waccamaw Conference, learning that every week presents a challenge.
“I knew coming in you have to have your A-game every day,” Jernigan.
“Top to bottom, anybody can beat anybody. Whiteville has been at the top, but everybody we play is competitive. They’re not big schools, but they’re hard workers. Doesn’t matter how great you are, you have to prepare yourself.”
The four Robeson County teams also have the benefit of playing each other without having to travel far for conference games.
For Heil, it presents additional challenges because of the traditional rivalry games — Fairmont vs. South Robeson and St. Pauls vs. Red Springs.
“I personally don’t know if it is a benefit,” Heil said. “Each of us are going to get up to play each other because it’s in the county. To me, I’m inheriting whatever (the rivalry) was or is.”
Cook said Twitter and Facebook are always buzzing after games.
“We know each other and support each other,” Cook said. “Two seconds (after a game) on social media, they’re talking about what happened. It’s enjoyable. It gives us something to talk about.”
Jernigan added that players in the county also benefit from a recruiting perspective because the other coaches have seen them play so much.
“It helps promote the kids,” he said. “It helps boost their chances of playing at the next level when another coach in the county is talking about one of your players. It gets the kids better opportunities.”
While the rivalries can get intense on the field, Jernigan said overall, he enjoys playing in a conference with three other teams from the county.
“I think it’s good, especially not having to travel so far,” Jernigan said. “The only time there’s hate is when the ball is kicked off. There’s a lot of love off the field.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.