The Eastern Carolina 3A Conference starts a three-week run with games between the top-three squads Friday when undefeated Cleveland plays at undefeated Erwin Triton.
Then, next week, Cleveland hosts South Johnston (6-1, 3-0, No. 16) and the trifecta wraps up with Triton visiting South Johnston Oct. 26.
The game between Cleveland (8-0 overall, 4-0 conference, ranked No. 4 in the N&O poll) and Triton (7-0, 3-0, No. 8), the 2011 league champion, is one of the most highly anticipated battles in the 3A ranks this season.
Cleveland, South Johnston and Triton have dominated the ECC in scoring the past two seasons, averaging nearly 20 points more per outing than the bottom four teams in the league.
There are very good offensive-minded coaches in this conference, said Cleveland coach Marc Morris said. Teams and players who are very talented on offense, too. But its still going to come down to the team that plays the best defense.
Triton played the best defense in the key games last season, holding Cleveland and South Johnston to a combined 30 points in two victories.
Triton turned last years visit to Cleveland into a win on a quartet of second-half interceptions, two of which were returned inside the Rams 20-yard-line, setting up easy scores in a 48-21 victory.
Two weeks later against South Johnston, the Hawks won 55-9, limiting the Trojans passing offense to a 30 percent completion rate.
The scoring for the conferences leading trio hasnt slowed down this season. All three average 30 or more per night, led by Clevelands 46.5 average. In league games, all three are averaging five touchdowns a game.
Defense has been on the rise for all three as well, with Cleveland allowing 11.1 points per game and Triton allowing 14.1 points.
This day and time, the baseline score for high school football has changed, said Triton coach Ashley Ennis. Now if you hold a team to 14, 21 points you feel like youre doing an outstanding job on defense. With the way teams spread people out, unless youre really talented at cornerback or linebacker, its tough. Its not the 1980s anymore.
South Johnston gives up 17.7 an outing.
Tritons great on defense, led by that defensive line, and South Johnston is really good as well, Morris said. Were better we feel like, too. Games are always going to come down to who plays better on defense. We gave Triton three or four touchdowns last year off of our turnovers. They made things happen on defense and thats what you have to do to win any game.