Garner Cleveland: Sports

Expect a dogfight for Two Rivers 3A Conference playoff berths

Cleveland’s Aaron Farmer (3) avoids the reach of Smithfield-Selma’s Robert Hicks (11) on his way to the end zone during the Rams’ win on Oct. 10.
Cleveland’s Aaron Farmer (3) avoids the reach of Smithfield-Selma’s Robert Hicks (11) on his way to the end zone during the Rams’ win on Oct. 10. newsobserver.com

Two games into the Two Rivers 3A Conference football season, the prohibitive favorite — Cleveland — is still the “belle of the ball.” The rest of the league is a mix of teams with some hopes already realized, a few realized and some so far unfulfilled.

Cleveland and its high-scoring offense leads the way with a 2-0 record that’s only matched by South Johnston, followed by Corinth Holders and Smithfield-Selma and two teams who are winless in the league: Triton and Western Harnett.

“You have to still think that Cleveland is the belle of the ball, then there’s everybody else jumbled up behind them,” said Smithfield-Selma coach David Lawhon. “Maybe South Johnston’s a little ahead of the rest of the crowd right now, but it looks like a real dogfight.

“I hope it is a dogfight and I hope we’re in it.”

The Week 2 results from league play seem to suggest just that: there’s no team not in the playoff hunt.

The top three finishing teams in the six-member conference are guaranteed playoff spots.

Two of the most surprising of those playoff hopefuls so far have to be South Johnston and Smithfield-Selma.

The Trojans, after winning just one of their six non-conference games, are tied for first with Cleveland.

“You could have never told three weeks ago by the way we came out to practice or approached practice that we were 1-5,” South Johnston coach Hunter Jenks said. “The guys were always enthuasistic, working hard and doing the things we know it takes to be successful.”

The Trojans (3-5 overall, 2-0 conference) after getting off to slow start after slow start in the first seven weeks, jumped out to a 13-point first-half lead on Corinth Holders Friday. South rode that lead — and a smothering defense — to a comfortable 19-point win over the Pirates.

“We’ve had so many games where we’ve started slow against good teams,” Jenks said. “And been able to comeback and kind of make those games. It makes a big difference when you get the kind of start we got against a good team like Corinth Holders.”

Smithfield-Selma impressed with its grit against Cleveland in its conference opener, then showed even more of that grit in a comeback win over Western Harnett last week.

“They realize that we have a shot at it, but we’ve got to continue to show the fight we showed against Cleveland and last week,” Lawhon said. “We knew once we got through that rough non-conference schedule that we’d have a chance in a new season. And that’s what conference play is, a new season.”

The Spartans (2-6, 1-1) are still dealing with the same depth issues they’ve had for several years, but when Two Rivers opponents line up against SSS they know they will be up for a physical battle against a determined squad.

After averaging 46.25 points a night in wins over North Johnston, Bunn, C.B. Aycock and Franklinton, Corinth Holders’ point production has dropped off to just 20 points a game in conference play.

“Offensively, we just haven’t had it the last two weeks,” said Corinth Holders coach Barry Honeycutt. “We got off to a bad start (against Western Harnett) but got it back enough to get out with a win. (Against South Johnston) we had a bad start and never got it out it.

“We’ve got to find a way to get back to doing what we’ve been doing well, well.”

That’s the main issue for a Corinth Holders team with eyes still on a share of a conference title and a playoff spot. Because in a league dominated by high-scoring teams, struggling on offense is not the way to go if you want to play more than one game in November.

The Pirates (5-3, 1-1) will need to find that scoring touch again quickly this week with their visit to conference-leading Cleveland. Corinth Holders has to win to keep its hopes for a share of the conference championship alive.

The Rams (7-1, 2-0) have been in some of the highest-scoring games in the state this season but won both, thanks to an offense that puts on nearly seven touchdowns a night on average.

Cleveland’s lowest point total in its seven victories is 35, so there is a clear goal teams must figure out how to get to when facing the Rams: score six touchdowns.

That might be getting harder and harder as the season goes along with the number on the opposite side of the scoreboard from Cleveland’s number steadily dropping. The Rams have allowed just 54 points in their last four games.

That leaves the two teams most opponents are the most wary of: league winless squads Triton and Western Harnett. Both have shown promise.

Triton has been in every game it has played (with the exception of the second half against Cleveland) since a season-opening loss to Cape Fear.

Western came into conference play on a two-game winning streak but has lost to Corinth Holders and SSS by a combined eight points the past two weeks.

The Eagles will meet both conference co-leaders — South and Cleveland — in the season’s final three weeks.

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