The new Two Rivers 3A Conference brings together the best of the old Eastern Carolina 3A Conference 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 Lillington area.
Every school except Western Harnett is moving into a geographically smaller area. League coaches believe the closer proximity will promote competitive and entertaining football.
Cleveland (12-2 overall, 5-1 conference last year) is the pick to win the league 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 also return.
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 titles, is used to being overlooked in the preseason.
But Hawks coach Ashley Ennis believes with as many questions as his team has entering the season, there’s reason to wonder exactly where Triton ranks in the conference. Especially after the loss of tight end/safety Austin Lee to a season-ending injury during the second week of practice.
Lee’s departure leaves tackle Johnny Hodges as the only returning offensive line starter.
Senior Jeremy Liggett is the new starting quarterback for the Hawks,.
“A lot of our success depends on how quickly we’re going to be able to put five guys together on the offensive line,” Ennis said.
South Johnston (8-4, 4-2) coach Shane Dular will field a young team that has six returning starters.
But league teams play only five conference games – none before the second weekend in October – so coaches think they’ll see a battle-tested team every week in conference games. .
“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 non-conference schedules. So anybody who is young like us will be battle-tested by October.”
Corinth Holders (5-7, 5-2), which played in the Northern Carolina 2A Conference last season, 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,” Pirates coach Barry Honeycutt said. “When we opened (varsity play) that first year, we played a lot of 10th graders. Now those guys are two-years starters. We’ve got a lot of high expectations for our potential there.”
The entire starting secondary – safeties Hampton Smith and Justin Humble and cornerbacks Kiyon Walden and Tori Carmichael – returns. Linebackers Butler Collins and Austin Brees will return, as do defensive end Kendrick Cobb and defensive tackle Aubrey Bussey.
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 Conference where it was by far the smallest school in the league. The Spartans look 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,” SSS coach David Lawhon said. “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 (mid-90s) but dealing with a familiar problem for a school with a heavy concentration of military families. The Eagles have lost six 2012 starters when families moved because of military duty.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Speck (6-2, 170 pounds) will lead a backfield that also includes several 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 guard on offense. Senior safety Darius Alston (5-7, 155) is a returning all-conference performer.
The offensive line will be an early point of emphasis with that unit hardest hit by the moves.
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