Commitment is the buzzword in the Smithfield-Selma football program as the Spartans make the transition back to the 3A level after struggling as a 4A team the past few seasons.
So far, the Spartans are winning the commitment battle, said second-year head coach David Lawhon.
“We had productive summer workouts. Our participation has been much better,” Lawhon said. “Our numbers are about the same, working with about 28 on varsity. We all want big numbers, but we’re looking to get the least amount of drop-off from player 1-25 on the roster.”
Even when the Spartans buzzed through an unbeaten regular season in 1997, there was never a sideline filled with gold helmets. Most Smithfield-Selma teams have struggled to get above the 35-man level for the past decade, so getting the best out of every player on the roster is even more important for the Spartans
“If you’ve got 24 or 25 that really get after it, you’re going to be okay,” Lawhon said. “We will deal with a lot of the same issues: a lot of guys going both ways, a lack of depth. It’s been that way for years and years.”
So avoiding huge injury issues will be a big key to the Spartan season. Last year, Smithfield-Selma was able to put just one of its opening night starting offensive linemen on the field in the fourth game because of injuries.
The Spartans already know, though, that they’ll be without one of their most promising players this season: senior receiver and defensive back Quantez Leach, who will continue his cancer treatments until the end of October. Leach was elected as a team captain by his teammates.
But Lawhon is still optimistic. He says the weight room work his team has put in this offseason is a big positive as the 2013 season draws near.
“We’ve built excitement in the weight room during the winter, and that excitement carried over into the spring and summer,” Lawhon said. “We’ve gotten a lot of senior leadership. We’ll be a much stronger football team than we’ve been in the last couple of years.”
The Spartans coaching staff, namely his assistants, has drawn just as much praise from Lawhon for their offseason work. From staffing weight room sessions to conditioning and footwork workouts, they’ve done it all.
Smithfield-Selma will move to the pistol attack on offense and has five returning starters in the lineup, led by quarterback Chris Samuels. Up front, the middle of the offensive line returns intact: center Chris Parker, left guard Zack Taylor and right guard John Gibbons.
And two-way starter Leroy Hill is a weapon to watch at tight end, according to Lawhon.
Other potential key players on offense will be receivers Robert Hicks, Jamal Stancil, tight end Alex Watts and running back Chris Tappin.
Hill also starts at defensive end. He’s one of just two starters back on defense, along with Stancil at cornerback.
“We think we’ll be a little better with our front four,” Lawhon said of the defense. “Our goal will be to bend, but don’t break. We want teams to have to go a long way to score on us, not give up the big play.”
The Spartans should benefit greatly from the move to the new Two Rivers 3A Conference, down from the Triangle’s most top-heavy 4A conference – the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference.
“The conference change should help,” Lawhon said. “There’s not a Garner in there. We should match up a little better on paper in this league. But we’re jumping into a league with a lot of good teams. Corinth Holders went to the playoffs last year and Cleveland, South Johnston and Triton have all been consistent, winning programs.”
Lawhon likes number of potential rivalry games that the Spartans will play in the conference.
The Spartans’ reshuffled nonconference schedule includes games against longtime rival Clayton and former Greater Neuse River 4A Conference foe West Johnston.
“We’re excited to see where we stack up at the 3A level,” Lawhon said. “We’ve got enthusiasm to start the season. And it’s tough to build enthusiasm when you dealing with kids that didn’t win much at the middle school or junior varsity level. They don’t know how it feels to win consistently, but I like their enthusiasm and positive attitudes.”