A focus for coaches in the Two Rivers 3A has been to build depth on the roster during tryouts. That’s one reason Cleveland is the overwhelming preseason favorite, with more than 100 players out for the varsity and junior varsity teams.
South Johnston also has a good turnout, but not as much returning experience. Triton returns talent, but the Hawks are thin. If they remain healthy, they could be a dark horse in the race.
Scouting the field
Favorite: Cleveland expects to balance a heavy loss of seniors with team speed that head coach Scott Riley says is better than any of his past teams. The Rams went 5-0 to win the conference title and won two playoff games before elimination to finish with a 10-4 record.
Underdog: South Johnston might make a run at the title if the Trojans can come together under new head coach Matt Riggsbee and balance a strong running game. Riggsbee likes the potential of his wide receivers in the open field.
Darkhorse: Triton’s depth is a concern, but two athletic seniors have returned to football this fall to bolster the lineup. Aaron Hedgepeth has been focused on his college baseball future as a first baseman, but he’ll line up at offensive tackle and defensive end in the fall.
And Adam Capps is back at tight end after not playing as a junior.
Players to watch
Caiden Norman, Cleveland: The 6-foot-2, 185-pound quarterback returns as a dual threat after throwing for 3,500 yards and rushing for more than 1,000.
Noah Barnes, Cleveland: The senior defensive end is drawing Division I recruiting interest and provides a bookend to the defensive line opposite another returning senior starter at defensive end, T.J. Naumann.
De’Marius Staton, Triton: The 6-foot, 220-pound junior fullback can gain the tough yards in the middle of the field and might find more running room if some promising wingbacks break off plays to open up the field.
Danny Morales, South Johnston: The 5-10, 250-pounder was one of four returning offensive lineman, but he has been flipped to defense as part of a plan to play two-platoon football this year. His experience was needed on the defensive side of the ball with three other O-line starters back.
Kavante Robinson, South Johnston: The 5-10, 170-pounder returns after rushing for 1,791 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. He provides a strong 1-2 punch with Caleb Robinson. Riggsbee wants Robinson to focus on offense in his two-platoon plan.
Dalaquan Alston-Ray, Western Harnett: The 6-1, 200-pounder was one of the top defensive players in the league on a 2-8 team, but he’ll cover more ground this year as an outside linebacker.
Michael Starks, Western Harnett: The 5-11, 232-pounder was effective as a blocking back last year, but he’s expected to take advantage of the new triple-option scheme that will feed him the ball.
Tyquan Dublin, Smithfield-Selma: The Spartans are counting on the senior fullback’s durability and experience running out of a Wing-T offense.
Most important games
Aug. 19, Smithfield-Selma at West Johnston: The Spartans are thin on experience. Building confidence in the opener will be important to help set the tone for the remainder of the season.
Aug. 26, Cleveland at Garner: Riley believes he has a lineup than can compete with the area’s best football teams. A test against traditional power Garner is a good early-season gauge.
Sept. 1, South Johnston at Clayton: South Johnson’s returning players will face former head coach Hunter Jenks as Clayton’s new head coach. Jenks will see plenty of familiar (and talented) faces since he didn’t leave the cupboard bare.
Oct. 7, Triton at Cleveland: For Triton to mount a challenge against Cleveland and South Johnston, the Hawks need to remain healthy. Facing Cleveland in the league opener rather than late in the season may help from that standpoint.
Oct. 14, Cleveland at South Johnston: The preseason league favorite travels to the field of the squad picked to finish second in this midseason showdown.
Oct. 21, Western Harnett at Corinth Holders: The two teams are picked in the middle of the pack. If the winner combines it with an upset of one of the top teams in league play, they may be a playoff contender.