Smithfield: Sports

Princeton set to strike again

Princeton's Johnny Fraiser (22) rushes from the backfield during last year's state quarterfinal win over rival Rosewood.
Princeton's Johnny Fraiser (22) rushes from the backfield during last year's state quarterfinal win over rival Rosewood.

Contrary to popular folklore, the National Severe Storms Laboratory confirms that lightning can strike in the same place twice, potentially within a short period of time.

For the Princeton football team, a squad that caught lightning in a bottle late in the season last year en route to a surprising run to the 1A eastern championship game, all the ingredients are there for a repeat strike this season.

Inheriting a young team last summer, then first year Princeton head coach Derrick Minor witnessed his squad mature and improve over the course of the regular season. Three playoff road wins later, the Bulldogs fell to eventual state champions Plymouth, just one game away from playing for the state title themselves.

The playoff run sparked a commitment to getting better in the off-season as the Bulldogs began to understand their potential.

“Our goal this year is ‘One more,’ ” said Minor. “One more rep in the weight room, one more sprint, one more week, one more game.

“We just want one more.”

The excitement created from the Bulldogs’ streak last season carried over into the off-season with tangible results.

Approximately 70 players, 30 more than a year ago, showed up for tryouts. A focus on doing well in the classroom assured that every player was academically eligible to play this fall. Finally, a renewed commitment to weight training has this year’s team poised to be the strongest Bulldog contingent in quite some time.

“Overall, the kids have bought in,” Minor said, referring to his Pride Points leadership program that celebrates the effort of each Bulldog in the classroom, in the weight room and in volunteering efforts. “The off-season was phenomenal.

“They’re seeing that hard work is paying off.”

If there’s a unit for the Bulldogs that symbolizes the work ethic Minor has instilled, it’s the offensive line.

Led by Pre-Season All-State selection Matthew Peedin, all five Bulldogs on the offensive line saw extensive playing time last season.

Joining Peedin are Matthew Hewitt, Jared Pierce, Chris Sauls and Waylon Woodall.

“They get after it and they get after each other,’ Minor said of his offensive line. “They’re back with playoff experience.

“Experience is the best teacher every time.”

Returning in the backfield behind that experienced line for Princeton is leading rusher Johnny Frasier.

The electrifying Frasier rushed for 1,792 yards last season and 21 scores while hauling in 13 catches for 194 yards.

Michael Wooten returns as starting quarterback for the Bulldogs after an impressive sophomore season.

The dynamic and heady 6-foot-3 junior threw for over 1,100 yards and ran for over 400 yards last season and figures to lead a potent Princeton single wing spread attack.

The key for the Bulldogs having a successful season, however, may very well rest on the back of the defense, a unit that showed tremendous improvement in the second half of last season when Princeton needed it the most.

The heart and soul and the Princeton defense is found right in the middle with an experienced and talented linebacking corps.

Hard-hitters Cody Garner, Quinton Rhue and Adrian Whack lead the way while emerging Jeremy Wells figures to be a key addition at outside linebacker.

“Now they have that mentality that we can shut teams down defensively if we have to,” said Minor of his defense. “They’re coming back hungrier and having that defense back, that stonewall that we had in the playoffs, is huge.”

On special teams, the arrival of Vicente Mendez and his powerful leg appears to have filled a hole on the special teams unit.

A new obstacle for the Bulldogs to contend with this season is a rejuvenated Carolina 1A Conference.

Although perennial conference powers Ayden-Grifton and Goldsboro are now gone, three new well respected programs in Hobbton, Lakewood, and Warsaw James Kenan join the mix and, along with North Duplin, Rosewood and Spring Creek, create a formidable conference slate for the Bulldogs to tackle.

But Minor welcomes the new challenge and relishes the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with other great teams.

“We replaced good teams with more good teams but we believe that we are at that level,” said Minor. “Now we’ve got to go out and prove it.”