On the verge of conference play, St. Pauls and Lumberton have each recovered nicely from early-season losses to own four- and three-game winning streaks. The Pirates are off Friday in preparation for their league opener with Pinecrest while the Bulldogs entertain East Carteret at home.
Lumberton has won eight of its last 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, a good sign heading into the meat of the schedule. St. Pauls has scored 40 or more points in every game this season, making its offense the most lethal in the Three Rivers Conference.
Rankings are based on strength of schedule, quality wins, talent on offense and defense and a personal eye test. Like all rankings not based on a computer-based mathematical formula, these are subjective. Previous rankings are indicated.
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6. Fairmont (2-3, PR: 5): Fairmont’s season reached a new low last week in a 39-point loss to Ashley, the Golden Tornadoes’ worst home defeat since 2008. The mood turned toxic in the fourth quarter with most players hanging their heads on the sideline after the fifth ejection for fighting in two weeks and fans shouting nasty remarks at the coaching staff. Things may get worse before they get better for the Golden Tornadoes but the good news is four key starters who were suspended after the Lake View, S.C. game will be back in the lineup for next week’s conference opener against South Robeson. Derrick Baker has shown flashes of being a capable every-down, power back in the league this season and with Fairmont’s passing game struggling, more of the offensive production will be placed on his shoulders.
5. South Robeson (2-3, PR: 4): It takes time to build a program from scratch and that’s basically what Stephen Roberson has done this fall at South Robeson. Lack of time in the weight room was evident in last week’s game in Pembroke when the Mustangs were pushed away from the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. South Robeson’s Daquinn Lindsay threw three picks, two to cornerback James Walker, and the Mustangs fumbled six times — interrupting any chance at fluidity on offense. South Robeson will use its off week to recover from a few aches and pains in preparation for the Golden Tornadoes. The Mustangs haven’t won a conference game in two seasons, but that will change this month or next.
4. Purnell Swett (2-3, PR: 6): Is there any player flying under the radar more than Andrew Hill? The junior running back missed Swett’s season opener but returned with tremendous power, totaling five touchdowns and 689 yards from scrimmage over the last four games. He’s averaging a county-high 9.5 yards per carry and breathed new life into a stagnant offense. The Rams shut out South Robeson for the third consecutive season on Friday night and did so in dominating fashion, limiting the Mustangs to just 66 yards on 57 plays. South Robeson was 1-for-12 on third down and turned it over four times. Looking deeper into the Rams’ two victories, both came against small schools and Swett is 0-3 against 4A competition. The Southeastern Conference gauntlet starts next week for Swett and it would take a complete turnaround to avoid the program’s second consecutive below .500 campaign. Most expected the Rams to be down this season after losing 22 seniors off last year’s team.
3. Red Springs (3-2, PR: 1): Are the Red Devils as good as advertised? Against two teams with comparable talent this season, Red Springs has struggled, turning it over seven times in a loss to fifth-ranked South Columbus and being taken behind the woodshed last week at 4A Sun Valley. In both games, mistakes and inconsistency on offense led to points for the opposition. In three wins, the Red Devils have averaged more than 500 yards and 50 points per game. The team’s winning record is a byproduct of games against weak competition, something St. Pauls and Lumberton have also leaned on this season. Without question, Red Springs has the county’s best skill players on offense but it’ll be interesting to see how the defense and offensive line fares in Three Rivers play against the likes of East Columbus and St. Pauls. Still considered my favorite heading into a top-heavy conference slate, Red Springs has a number of key games remaining to prove its for real before the postseason. Two losses against quality teams in the non-conference will benefit the Red Devils down the stretch.
2. St. Pauls (4-1, PR: 3): If the defense had played as expected this season headlined by a pair of players in the county’s Top 25, St. Pauls could be staring at a possible 6-0 start with a win Friday heading into the conference season, a far cry from last year’s disappointing 6-6 mark. The one blemish against Gray’s Creek still stings, but the Bulldogs have made strides since on that side of the football. St. Pauls has enough speed on offense to score when it wants to against most 2A competition, but what the Bulldogs haven’t developed is a reliable defense that can get the opposition off the field. It’s a problem that often gets lost when your offense is one of the top-scoring units in the state. The Bulldogs have a final non-conference tuneup Friday at home against East Carteret before next week’s highly-anticipated Three Rivers showdown in Red Springs. Last year’s lopsided 57-6 loss to their cross-county rival lingers with a senior class set on payback.
1. Lumberton (4-1, PR: 2): Could Lumberton be an SEC darkhorse this season? It’s sure shaping up that way over the last three weeks as the Pirates have captured victories in a variety of ways en route to a tie with St. Pauls for Robeson County’s best record. Friday’s win over Athens Drive was Lumberton’s first against a team with a winning record and proved the Pirates could compete with playoff-caliber competition after an early-season loss to Jack Britt. Up front, Lumberton is well-suited to stop run-heavy offenses from teams like Pinecrest and Hoke County and has the athletes to compete with league favorites Richmond and Scotland. Mike Brill says there’s still plenty of room to improve and his team has two weeks to do so before their all-important conference opener against the Patriots.