After two painful seasons, which reaped only one combined victory, North Johnston enjoyed considerable upward movement during the 2015 football campaign.
The Panthers won four of their first five games before faltering down the stretch in their challenging Eastern Plains Conference schedule.
Still, North Johnston went 5-6 in what was considered a successful overall showing – though the Panthers came up just short in their quest to end a recent playoff drought.
But just when the program appeared headed back in the right direction, second-year skipper Ashley Ennis stepped down to join the staff at South Johnston.
So when former assistant Jon Riba was selected to lead North Johnston earlier this summer, he became the school’s fourth coach this decade.
Lack of long-term continuity, especially with coaches, can derail the rebuilding efforts of a gridiron program. But Riba thinks the team’s adjustment will be minimized by the fact that he has been at North Johnston as an assistant under Ennis the past two years.
A California native, Riba started his coaching career in the Golden State before moving to North Carolina. His Tar Heel stops include Athens Drive, Smithfield-Selma and South Johnston, but Riba has never been a head coach.
“There are just a lot of little things that you don’t have to worry about as much when you are an assistant,’’ Riba said. “There are things that have to get done that you aren’t even aware of. And now, I can make the final decision about things.
“It’s something that I have always wanted to do. I thought I would get some opportunities in California, but we decided to move here, and that set me back a bit. You have to re-establish yourself when you go to a new place. I became contend with what I was doing (as an assistant), but things just unfolded the way they did for me this year.’’
Riba’s main quest this fall is to make a dent in the often-immovable upper sector of the Eastern Plains Conference, which usually features the likes of SouthWest Edgecombe and Washington. And with North Pitt, Beddingfield and Farmville Central also in the league mix, there is no such thing as a breather in the EPC.
With eight starters back on defense and six on offense — along with valuable experience gained last fall — North Johnston might find a way to surge back into the postseason, where it hasn’t been since 2011.
Who are some players to watch?
Junior quarterback Trey Whitley started last year and has the ability to both run and throw the ball. He also competes in basketball and baseball at North Johnston.
“Trey is the most athletic kid in the school,” Riba said. “He has a great arm and is a very smart kid. He will be a college kid in some sport.”
Ben Jaramillo, a 6-foot-3 senior, was an all-conference tight end in 2015, but will move to left tackle for his final campaign. He will also see time on the Panthers’ defensive front, which should be one of the club’s strongest overall groups.
“Ben is big and fast,’’ Riba said. “Like Trey, he will be playing in college.’’
Caleb Williams is a tested senior who will anchor the Panthers’ offensive and defensive lines.
Ian Walston, another senior, will handle the placekicking chores. Another multi-sport athlete at North Johnston, Walston provided one of the top moments of the 2015 season when he finished a soccer game just in time to walk a few hundred yards up campus to the football field. Arriving around halftime, Walston quickly put on his uniform and eventually kicked the winning PAT as part of a one-point victory over Nash Central.
At wide receiver, the Panthers have some solid options in Matthew Griswold and Jonathan Gonzalez -- both seniors. They will also see considerable duty in North Johnston’s secondary.
What players will they miss the most?
Riba didn’t hesitate with this answer, as the now-departed Dallas Krob was a jack-of-all trades for the Panthers at quarterback and linebacker. Krob was an all-conference linebacker last fall, but his contributions didn’t stop there.
“Dallas could play just about any position on the field,’’ Riba said. “If we needed somebody on the kickoff team, he would just run out there and do it. He was just an all-around good football player. He led us in tackles last year.’’
Cy Daughtry was an offensive line anchor who started at tackle and also saw time on defense. He is continuing his football career at Randolph-Macon University in Virginia.
Can North Johnston be a playoff participant?
It’s been a quartet of seasons -- and two coaches ago -- since North Johnston has reached the postseason. That’s a trend that Riba would love to end in 2016. And with 14 returning starters, the Panthers could experience a breakthrough in the always-tough Eastern Plains Conference.
“I’m optimistic — making the playoffs is our next step,” Riba said. “I think we can pick up where we left off last year (going 5-6). Our defense is pretty decent. We have a lot of veterans (on defense) who know how to get the job done. We just have to find out a way to put points on the scoreboard.”
More on the Panthers
Last season: 5-6 (1-4 Eastern Plains 2A)
Five year average: 4-8 (2-4)
Coaches: Jon Riba (head coach), Cory Barnes (Off. coordinator/QBs/DBs), Kyle Stevens (Def. coordinator/LBs), Jonathan Hartley (DL), Marc Rogers (WRs), Ricky Price (LBs)
Contributors: Jonathan Gonzalez (Sr., WR/CB), Tyler Scott (Sr., LB), Robert Jackson (Sr., C), Matthew Griswold (Sr., FS/WR), Trey Whitley (Jr., QB), Ian Walston (Sr., PK), Ben Jaramillo (Sr., OL/DL), Caleb Williams (Sr., DL/OL)
The main number: 26 — During five Eastern Plains outings in 2015, North Johnston accumulated just 26 total points and were shut out twice.
Aug. 19 vs. Louisburg, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Rosewood, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 1# at Nash Central, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Princeton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Smithfield-Selma, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 22# at South Johnston, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 BYE
Oct. 7* at Beddingfield, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 14* at Farmville Central, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21* vs. North Pitt, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28* at SouthWest Edgecombe, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 4* vs. Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Note: *conference game; #Thursday game