FAIRMONT — The Three Rivers Conference football title hangs in the balance as Fairmont travels to South Columbus for a winner-take-all conference championship game Friday night in Tabor City.
Along with the championship being claimed, a home state playoff game is a near certainty for the winner and is a fitting end of the season for the two unbeaten teams left in the league. This game was originally scheduled for Oct. 14, but the week of games lost to Hurricane Matthew was moved to this week after the NCHSAA moved the playoffs back one week to fit the games in, setting up the drama for the Tornadoes and the Stallions.
Fairmont (7-3, 6-0 TRC) is coming off a 42-21 win over St. Pauls to prevent the possibility of a three-way tie for the conference championship, but South Columbus (8-2, 6-0 TRC) raises challenges for Fairmont in different ways than the Bulldogs.
“Every game is a matchup, and this is a different matchup,” said Fairmont coach Mark Heil. “They are a run-power football team and that’s where we haven’t done well.”
The Wing-T run game that South Columbus will throw at Fairmont will be a test that it struggled to defend against early in the season. During their 0-3 start, the Golden Tornadoes were unable to stop the run against well-established run teams, but a few changes during the bye week after the bad start has patched up the defense and led to a seven-game win streak.
“The biggest difference in our football team is our defense,” Heil said. “We’ve bandaged up some things and moved people around. From game one to now there’s probably six different people playing in six different positions. We just had to find something that was going to slow people down, especially on the ground.”
With several different options out of the Stallions run game, Friday will be the toughest conference challenge for the Fairmont run defense that Heil said is a “night and day” difference from the opening three games of the season, crediting the defensive changes and learning more through practice.
Running backs Dennis Leggett and Trequan Bellamy have posed the biggest problems for teams this season along with quarterback Robbie Spencer and fullback Seth Buffkin running the ball on occasion.
“There are two great running backs, the fullback is a pounder and the quarterback, to me, looks very heady, runs the offense well and throws enough to keep you offense,” Heil said. “They’re doing well too, probably averaging 35 points per game as well. This could be a wide open affair.”
After two blowout wins last season against South Columbus, including one in the second round of the state playoffs, Heil has seen a resurgent team when watching on film. South Columbus’ lone loss last season that kept it from winning the Three Rivers Conference came at Fairmont in a game that was out of reach in the first quarter hen the Golden Tornadoes went up 38-0, before recording a 52-28 win.
But this is a new year and a new meeting between two experienced teams.
“Just in watching in film, it looks like they’re playing with a little excitement, little more aggressiveness,” Heil said. “We didn’t beat them once, but twice last year so you know revenge is on their mind.”
St. Pauls at Whiteville
Third place in the Three Rivers Conference is on the line as St. Pauls (6-4, 4-2 TRC) travels to Whiteville with both teams looking to rebound after losses last week to the two unbeatens in the league. Quarterback Noah Wheeler threw for three touchdowns, and also two interceptions, in the loss to Fairmont and his decision making while passing the ball will be a big factor for the Bulldogs’ offense.
West Columbus at Red Springs
Looking for its first win streak since September, Red Springs (5-5, 2-4 TRC) closes out the regular season at home against winless West Columbus. Red Springs’ offense rebounded from a poor showing against South Columbus with a lopsided win over South Robeson last week behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Toddrick Lockhart.
Hoke at Lumberton
Lumberton (3-7, 1-3 SEC) closes out its season fresh off earning its first conference win of the season last week. The Pirates host Hoke with the winner claiming fourth place in the Southeastern Conference. Behind its running game in the first half, Lumberton ran out to an early 36-7 lead with running back Montrez Howell scoring twice.
Richmond at Purnell Swett
Purnell Swett (3-7, 0-4 SEC) catches Richmond fresh off its 21-0 loss to rival Scotland as it closes out its season at home. Junior Al’Drique Thompson has racked up impressive numbers rushing the ball this season, including three touchdowns and 223 yards last week against Lumberton.
East Columbus at South Robeson
A seed in the 1A state playoffs could be on the line between East Columbus and South Robeson (1-9, 1-5 TRC) with one win to each team’s record. Last season, South Robeson defeated the Gators 26-14.
Contact Jonathan Bym on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.