CLAYTON — The new Two Rivers 3A Conference brings together the best of the old Eastern Carolina 3A football ranks (Triton, Cleveland and South Johnston), adds two more Johnston County schools (Smithfield-Selma and Corinth Holders) and picks up Western Harnett from the Fayetteville area, making for a more tightly located league than every school except Western is used to.
Coaches around the league agree that it should provide a competitive and entertaining football experience.
Cleveland (12-2 overall, 5-1 conference last year) is the pick to win the league once again but the Rams have plenty of questions with only six starters – including just a pair on defense – returning.
Offensively, standout senior running back Isaac Martin and junior quarterback Aaron Farmer are back in the lineup, while linemen Bryce Hale and Xavier Baker return as well.
The two defensive starters are good ones: linebacker Cardell Rawlings (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) and defensive end Dylan Caldwell (6-3, 275).
The defensive line could be an early strong point, according to coach Marc Morris.
Triton, which has beaten Cleveland and South Johnston to win the last two ECC 3A titles, is used to being a little underrated at this point.
“It gets a little chip on their shoulders,” said second-year head coach Ashley Ennis. “But I think they’re jaded to it now. … We have expectations for ourselves.”
Those expectations – as usual – are to find the right mix of backfield talent to make the wing-T produce big yardage and point totals.
But Triton (10-1, 6-0) will have to do it without a lot of proven talent at the speed positions in the attack after the graduation of Dedrick Stacker and Brandon McLean. There’s proven talent at fullback with Todd Penny and Devonte Stewart but just one returning starting offensive lineman (Johnny Hodges).
“We don’t need the guys on our offensive line to be big, gigantic kids,” Ennis said. “We need guys who are quick off the ball, can block down, make that kick-out block. We lost four very good linemen from last year so that’s an area of concern.”
Tight end Austin Lee and receiver Chris Eason are back in the starting lineup as well.
The Hawks return 26 lettermen and feature a senior class that has the chance to do something no Triton class has ever done: win four straight conference championships.
That would be quite the accomplishment for a school that hadn’t won a conference championship before 2010.
The Hawks’ defensive strength will be on the edge with outside linebackers Tyler Tyndall (6-foot, 190 pounds) and Brad Miller back, as well as talented defensive end Tim McNeill (6-0, 260). Lee also starts at safety.
South Johnston (8-4, 4-2) coach Shane Dular will field an extremely young team, he says, with just six returning starters.
With just five conference games – none before the second weekend in October – coaches across the league think they’ll see a battle-tested team every week they step on the field in the Two Rivers 3A.
“I think this is going to be a great conference for fans with a lot of close and hard-fought games,” Dular said. “You’ve got a lot of teams – like us – who are playing extremely tough nonconference schedules. So anybody who is young like us will be battle-tested by October.”
Corinth Holders (5-7, 5-2), who played in the Northern Carolina 2A Conference previously, has a league-high 13 starters returning, including eight on defense.
“Defense hasn’t been our strength in the past but we hope to see that improve,” said Pirates coach Barry Honeycutt. “When we opened (varsity play) that first year, we played a lot of 10th graders. Now those guys are two-year starters. We’ve got a lot of high expectations for our potential there.”
Smithfield-Selma (1-10, 1-6) – which got its one win last season via a forfeit – ends a two-year run in the Greater Neuse River 4A, where it was by far the smallest school in the league, looking to the 3A ranks with renewed promise.
The Spartans have five starters back on offense led by quarterback Chris Samuels, tight end Leroy Hill and linemen Chris Parker, Zack Taylor and John Gibbons.
“We had a productive summer,” said SSS coach David Lawhon. “Our workouts have been much better attended.”
The team will still be small in numbers – somewhere around 30 – but Lawhon thinks it will be deeper even with the loss of talented receiver/defensive back Quantez Leach who will miss the season while undergoing treatment for cancer.
Leach will remain a part of the team, however. He was voted a captain by his Spartan teammates.
Western Harnett (3-8, 2-4) coach Larry Brock is enthused with the number of players in the program (90-plus) but is dealing with a familiar problem for a school with a heavy concentration of military families. The Eagles have lost six starters from last year’s team to families moving because of military duty since last season.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Speck (6-foot-2, 170 pounds) will lead a backfield that includes promising runners, led by senior Laron Gilchrist at fullback (5-7, 260) and sophomore wingback Jae’pell Ortiz (5-9, 165).
Senior Antonio Hernandez will go both ways, starting at middle linebacker and at guard on offense. Senior safety Darius Alston (5-7, 155) is a returning all-conference performer.