News-Star: Sports

The unknowns have disappeared

Cleveland's Aaron Farmer (3), above celebrating last fall, is set to begin his third season as the Rams’ starting quarterback.
Cleveland's Aaron Farmer (3), above celebrating last fall, is set to begin his third season as the Rams’ starting quarterback.

With the unknowns that come along with a new conference alignment gone, the Two Rivers 3A Conference is likely to feature a tightly packed six-pack of teams this fall.

“We’re in a situation now where we’ve got a lot of familiarity and close ties with the county schools: Cleveland, South Johnston and Smithfield-Selma,” said Corinth Holders coach Barry Honeycutt. “The teams like Triton and Western Harnett, we’re a little more familiar with them now too.”

The league’s top two teams — Triton (9-3 overall, 4-1 conference in 2013) and Cleveland (9-4, 5-0)— are both going through head coaching changes, but both Ben Penny at Triton and Scott Riley at Cleveland took over veteran staffs, didn’t make many scheme changes and return strong lineups.

The Hawks (conference champions in 2011 and 2012 in the Eastern Carolina 3A) and the Rams (2013 champs in the Two Rivers 3A) should again be right in the middle of the championship race.

Corinth Holders could put one of the better offenses in the area on the field with senior quarterback Cole Sakowski and receivers Tony Kirkwood and Dymon Walker. Sakowski had a TD to interception ratio of better than 3-to-1 last year and threw for nearly 3,000 yards. Defensively, the Pirates (7-5, 2-3) need to develop inexperienced players at defensive end and in the secondary.

South Johnston (2-9 1-4) also has a new head coach, former assistant Hunter Jenks. The Trojans will be young but figure to be right in the middle of the race for the guaranteed playoff spots.

Western Harnett (4-8, 2-3) returns more than half of its starters from a season ago. The Eagles, whose district includes a large amount of military families, constantly battle losing players to moves. Last year’s team had 13 starters move out of state.

“We’re still better than we were last year, even losing 13 guys,” said Western coach Larry Brock. “We’ve lost three already (to moves) this summer, but we’re used to dealing with it.”

The Eagles shifted senior linebacker Austin Wright to quarterback and shifted starting guard Kaleb Burrell to tight end. Offensively, Western will still be ground-based from the wing-T formation.

“We ran the ball 85 percent of the time in our seven-on-seven passing leagues this summer,” Brock said. “So yeah, you can expect us to run the ball.”

The offensive and defensive lines should be an area of strength with multiple two-year starters back in the lineup.

Smithfield-Selma (1-10, 1-4), which halted a 40-game losing streak with its season-ending win over South Johnston last season, has a promising group of veteran offensive and defensive linemen featuring returning starters Kodi Satterfield (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), John Gibbons (6-3, 230), Erick Alvarado and John Lucas (6-2, 245). A fifth player — senior Antonio Blake (5-10, 280) — would be listed as a returning starter if he didn’t miss the 2013 season after suffering an injury.

“The unknowing is over,” said Smithfield-Selma coach David Lawhon. “You know Cleveland is going to be fast, Triton is going to be huge, Corinth Holders is going to be fundamentally sound. Western Harnett keeps getting better. There will be no surprises from the standpoint of you know every team has an outstanding coaching staff and will be ready to play each night out.”