Just a handful of games into the season, the boys and girls coaches of the Shootout field recycled the terms ‘work in progress’ and ‘find an identity’ as they spoke about their respective ball clubs. Along with the six county schools — Fairmont, Lumberton, Purnell Swett, Red Springs, South Robeson and St. Pauls — visitors West Bladen, competing for the first time, and Dillon of S.C. are slated for the 28th annual tournament.
Most of the coaches see the annual Shootout, which runs Wednesday, Dec. 12 through Saturday, Dec. 15, as a gauge for where their teams are at rotation- and x-and-o-wise heading into their conferences seasons that follow winter break. Some, if successful enough during the three-day tourney, even hope to use the Shootout as a springboard into the new year.
Lumberton, which won its first game Wednesday against St. Pauls, 58-55, and Purnell Swett, also sitting with just one win, are most especially looking for any momentum shifts they can find.
“We’re trying to find something,” Purnell Swett boys coach Jeremy Sampson said. “I told the guys, we’re offensively-challenged and we’re defensively-challenged. But, losing a guy like Juwan Jones, that will happen to you. But the guys are going hard.”
Swett, Lumberton, and the rest of the field, will take solace in knowing they won’t be seeing last year’s Shootout title winners, Flora Macdonald Academy, which breezed through the competition last year. FMA, recently stripped of a its North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association state championship, was not invited back to this year’s tournament.
“The pool I think is pretty competitive,” St. Pauls boys coach Travis Lemanski said. “On any given night, any team can beat any other team … which kind of wasn’t that case last year. We got drug in that semifinal game (against FMA) and that was no fun.”
Above all, though, the coaches see the Robeson County Shootout as familiar territory each December.
“We look forward to playing in the Shootout every year,” Lumberton head coach Danny Graham said. Graham has helped lead the Lady Pirates to six Shootout titles, including last year’s with a win over St. Pauls. “I think I’m one of the last of the old regime of girls coaches. I think of the original ones that started in it, I’m the last one … And I’m still enjoying it.”
Fairmont head boys coach Michael Baker echoed Graham’s sentiments, and reminisced on how the tournament came to fruition.
“I was involved with the first one 27 years ago,” Baker said. “At the time we were looking all over the state for a tournament to play in and we said, we can stay right here.”
That is, thanks to what was then Pembroke State, now UNC-Pembroke, opening its gym doors for the inaugural event in 1986. After a long hiatus, last year UNCP returned as the host of the Shootout’s final day and will play host again this year.
“It gives the players a little more exposure and a little more pride to step on a college floor and get an opportunity to play on it,” Baker said.