Coming off his best season in five years as a head coach and East Wake’s best season in the past decade, John Poulnott has good reason to want more.
The Warriors finished 10-3 and second in the Greater Neuse River Conference with a 6-1 mark. Their only losses were to state 4AA runner-up Wake Forest (15-1), to GNRC champion and 4AA East runner-up Garner (13-2), and to Scotland County (12-2) in the second round of the 4A state playoffs.
“We were three or four plays from being ahead of Wake Forest (a 27-18 loss) and Garner (33-21) and an injury away from having a good chance against Scotland (28-12),” Poulnott said. “That 10-win season is definitely something we’re looking at again and looking to improve on.”
Minimal loss to graduation has East Wake in position to live up to the coach’s expectations.
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Elusive senior quarterback Tripp Harrington returns after a 2,561-yard passing campaign in 2014. He also rushed for 674 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Tripp has just got to try to stay humble, and the biggest thing we say in my offense is we’ve got to take advantage of what the defense gives us,” Poulnott said. “That’s why we love that dual-threat QB on offense. ... It’s an equalizer.”
Harrington will have as targets three senior receivers who were among the top five in last year’s air attack – Tyler Burton (603 yards, 8 TDs), DeAndre Holmes and Chris Ajagbawa. Senior tight end Jacob Ellington also is an option.
Senior Cardarius Hartsfield and junior Mikekale Engles will split time replacing running back Damontay Rhem, a UNC-Pembroke signee.
While Ellington doubles as a linebacker, Burton, Holmes and Ajagbawa will spend more time than usual at defensive back. Each has played there before, but not frequently last season.
Seniors rounding out the defensive standouts are linemen Hayden Leach and Stephen Harris, linebacker Omar Smith and cornerback Raequan Mudd.
“The biggest thing is not just living off last year’s success and thinking it’s going to come again just because we turned the corner last year,” Poulnott said. “Even the bottom half of the conference challenged us last year.
“We know from past experience that any given Friday we can play against anybody and we can lose against anybody. We’ve got to practice like we’ve got a chance and the teams we play have a chance to take us out if we’re complacent.”
Offense: Multiple spread.
Defense: 3-4, 4-3.
Contributors: QB Tripp Harrington; WR/DB Tyler Burton; WR/DB Chris Ajagbawa; WR/DB DeAndre Holmes; RB/LB Cardarius Hartsfield; RB/LB Mikekale Engles; RB/WR Kenjahliq Brown; FB/LB Zaveon Moore; OL/DL Zack Willard; OL Damien Williams; OL Chandler Eddins; OL/DL Alex Haugh; LB/TE Jacob Ellington; DL Hayden Leach; OL/DL Stephen Harris; TE/LB Omar Smith; FB/LB Lacy Jones.
Expected team strengths: Harrington, the receivers and linebackers. Poulnott: “When our offensive line is full strength, they’re also pretty special. We’re going into the season a man down, but when we’re full strength, they are pretty strong.”
Question marks: Running backs and secondary.
Players they’ll miss the most: Running back Damontay Rhem (1,394 yards, 14 TDs in 2014) and wide receiver Quincy Jackson (648 yards, 6 TDs in nine games in 2014).
The main number: 7 – the number of wins it would take for East Wake to run the table in the GNRC.
The quote: “Whether we start out slow or we’re just screaming, we’ve got the skill and the opportunity to challenge the top teams in the conference,” Poulnott said.
Game to watch: Aug. 21 at Millbrook. The Wildcats went 11-3 including a 7-6 loss to East Wake in 2014, setting up a grudge match for their season opener.
Past 5 seasons
2014: 10-3 (6-1), 4A second round
2013: 4-7 (3-3)
2012: 3-8 (3-4)
2011: 3-8 (1-6)
2010: 2-9 (2-5)