Traditionally one team in each conference enters the season wearing a bull’s-eye.
This year in the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference, Erwin Triton and Cleveland are teams that everybody else in the league is shooting at.
Target No. 1 is Triton (10-2 in 2011), which is the defending league champion and is coming off of a 6-0 run in the conference. The Hawks return more than half of their starting lineup, including reigning ECC player of the year Dedrick Stacker in the offensive backfield.
Target No. 2: Cleveland (11-4), which finished second in the conference but ran to the 3AA regional championship in the Rams’ debut season as a varsity program. The Rams return 21 starters and have added players who could win starting roles as well.
Both of those squads know that although a lot of attention will be focused on their Oct. 12 showdown in Erwin, they’ll have plenty of challenges to overcome before and after that date if there’s more November glory in their futures.
“We know we’re wearing the bull’s-eye,” said Triton coach Ashley Ennis, the only new football coach in the league. “We have to be prepared for everybody’s best game each and every Friday night.”
Cleveland is a team that came alive after a wild 62-59 victory over South Johnston last year and lived a charmed life until running into eventual state champ Havelock.
“It’s harder to be the guy who’s getting hunted instead of being the hunter,” Morris said. “It’s something you’re going to have to be aware of if you’re Triton or us. You’re going to get that other team’s best shot. Teams will get up against us now because they’ve been told beating us is a big win.”
South Johnston (7-4), a team that’s been near the top of the league standings the past three seasons, has 10 new offensive starters, including several players making the shift from defense to offense.
Leading that group is senior quarterback Austin Raynor, who played quarterback as a sophomore on the junior varsity.
Seven defensive starters return, including versatile linebackers — and brothers — Quentin and Quincey Williams.
“We’ve got good kids,” said South Johnston coach Shane Dular. “They’re great to coach and will give everything they have on the field. We’re just inexperienced and trying to replace a lot of veteran, proven guys.”
Senior Lamorris Pridgen (6-foot, 187 pounds) leads a group of promising receivers at Eastern Wayne (3-6), but coach Bubba Williams says he needs to find a quarterback.
Southern Wayne started the 2011 season 4-0 but finished the season 6-5 (2-4 conference) and graduated 22 seniors. The Saints need to see development early in their offensive line, according to coach David Lee.
Pikeville Aycock (2-8) expects to get a boost on both sides of the ball from A.J. Mundle, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker/tight end who missed last season with a knee injury.
North Lenoir (0-10) returns 14 starters from a squad that struggled to score, notching only 7.4 points per game last season.
Three Games to Watch
Sept. 14: Eastern Wayne at South Johnston
Teams picked to tie for third in ECC preseason coaches poll meet in conference opener.
Oct. 19: South Johnston at Cleveland
JoCo rivals meet for the second time. Last year they played an NBA game – 121 points combined, decided in final minute.
Oct. 12: Cleveland at Triton
A pair of 10-win teams from a season ago square off, likely for the conference lead.