LUMBERTON — Heading into his third season as coach of the Lumberton High School football team, Mike Setzer wants his players to know that “they’re not as far away as they think they are” from being a special group.
Coming off their first playoff appearance since 2012, the Pirates enter the season looking to build on a 6-6 record that included a 3-2 mark in the Southeastern Conference. Lumberton was eliminated by Page in the first round of the NCHSAA 4AA state playoffs.
“If you go back and look at the Page game, we should have been up at halftime,” Setzer said. “And they went on to the (play in the state) championship. You just have to continue to believe and execute.”
The Pirates return 10 starters, including all-county and all-conference performers in sophomore quarterback Braylan Grice and senior all-purpose player Tyreik McCallum. Senior Aubrey Savannah anchors a strong defensive line and speedster Brandon Norris is expected to continue his role as a playmaker.
Unlike last season, Lumberton enters the year healthy as it prepares for its opener on Friday at home against Hunt.
“Last year we had some credit for being able to win some games,” Setzer said. “Now, it should be even more validation for the kids that you can get in the playoffs because you’ve already done it.”
The biggest void entering the season is left by Troy Mitchell, who led the Pirates’ offense last season with 1,501 rushing yards — second in the SEC behind Scotland standout Zamir White — and 17 touchdowns.
Setzer said junior Montrez Howell is the favorite to replace Mitchell’s production in the backfield.
“Montrez had 1,800 yards for jayvee, so we look forward to a big year out of him,” he said. “Carey Carter is pushing him, so we look for production out of him as well.”
The weight room has also provided the Pirates another improvement heading into the season. In June, Lumberton traveled to Cary for a weightlifting meet, earning top honors for their efforts.
“The weight room has allowed us to come together as a staff and raise the bar for the kids,” Setzer said. “Those kids have earned their way, showing themselves off at that weight room competition this summer.
“It not only shows how strong we are, but now it’s transferring to the field. It gives us confidence for what we lack in experience.”
Savannah said he looks to help set the tone for his teammates on the defensive side of the ball.
“With Shadix Ralston and Colby Bullard, we’re the leaders on the defensive line,” he said. “We have to put last season behind us and keep working. I want to get back to the playoffs and have a winning season.”
The offensive line appears to be an area of needed growth, with the loss of Pete Townsend and Kion Smith — two Pirates who will be playing college football this fall.
“Right now we have a lot of work to do with the line,” Setzer said. “It’s the most inexperienced part of our offense, but they’re improving. That’s what happens when you lose two FCS kids. We may not have the size, but we’ll be faster. That’s a plus.”
But Setzer said having Grice at quarterback is a relief, allowing the staff to spend more time in improving other positions.
“Several of my colleagues are having quarterback issues,” he said. “You forget sometimes, but when you have quarterback issues it can turn into 10 other problems. Thankfully we haven’t had that problem.”
He’s also confident in the skill-position players, particularly McCallum.
“Tyreik is the best athlete that we’ll see,” Setzer said. “He’s a special kind of guy. With him and Brandon Norris, the numbers don’t lie. If you get the ball in their hands, good things happen.”
McCallum said he’s comfortable with providing that role for his team.
“As one of the seniors coming back, I’m trying to make it a good year and bring the intensity,” he said. “Coach has put me in that position to make plays for a reason because he knows my athleticism and ability to move around on the field.”
Now that the team has had a taste of the playoffs, Setzer is hopeful the pieces will come together for the Pirates as the season progresses.
“It’s getting easier year by year for them to follow what you say,” he said. “We had to prove it to them, now we’re getting better. It makes us hungrier because we don’t just want to go to the playoffs, we want to win in the playoffs.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.