It appears that both North Forrest High School coach Anthony Dillon and Lumberton High School coach Zach Jones have been telling their players pretty much the same about the teams’ season opener.
“It’s a good thing we’re playing them on our home field,” Dillon said of his Eagles’ 7 p.m. showdown with the Panthers in Eatonville. “Hopefully, that can give us a little more motivation with the home crowd right here where you’re fighting to defend your home turf.
“They have a lot of starters returning from that state championship run of last year. We’re going to have come out and play our ‘A’ game, limit our mistakes and mental breakdowns.”
Jones, who schedules Lumberton’s non-regional games, said he needed to have a talk with the guy who thought it a good idea to open 2017 with a team that won five consecutive games after a 0-6 start to make the Class 2A playoffs last year.
“Coach Dillon is an outstanding coach, who’s built winners wherever he’s been,” Jones said. “When you are going to North Forrest, you’d better be ready.
“I just hope we can hold up our end.”
Last season, Lumberton held up its end all the way to South State championship and spot in the Class 1A championship game.
But Jones said what happened in 2016 won’t mean much Friday night.
“Last year’s in the past and we can’t rest on that,” Jones said. “We’ve got to take care of things. Everybody’s hollering, ‘You going to back to the state championship?’ and I can’t answer that question. We’re just going to go out there and work their tails off every day and be the best that we can be. If we do that, I like our chances.
“But we have to take care of us. We can’t rest on last year. It’s totally different. It’s going to be a totally different team. It’ll take on a totally different character, a different mindset, so we’ve just to take that and roll with it.”
Dillon said he spent time this summer showing the Eagles the often thin line between winning and losing.
“That’s what we did this summer during film study, we reviewed those games where we didn’t come out successful, and we counted the turnovers, the missed tackles, the metal breakdowns,” Dillon said. “They just saw that we could have easily had three, four more wins if we could have finished those games because a couple of the we lost in the last seconds.
“We told them, ‘Look, we love your positive stuff, but in order for us to get better, we have to change the negative things,’ and that’s kind of what we focused on this year. It was kind of eye-opening for a lot of them, ‘Coach, if I’d just made that block,’ or “Coach, if I’d just run the right route.’ So, that’s what we’ve focused on. We’ve told them start the year like we finished the year last year.”
Both teams lost key personnel.
Lumberton graduated workhorse running back Dre Coleman, but Jones used three backs, senior Krishan Fairley, junior Davion Edward and freshman Robert Henry, in the Panthers’ preseason jamboree tussle with Magee High School, and two others, seniors Rodriqus Coleman and Jaden Galloway, also figure to be in the mix.
“I’ve been asked probably a hundred times, do we have somebody to replace Dre Coleman,” Jones said. “I don’t know that we have one person who can replace him.”
Jones said he is especially glad to have junior quarterback Jared Tribett under center. Tribett threw for nearly 1,800 yards 18 touchdowns, with 16 scores going to returning senior Donnell Buckner.
“I think he’s the most underrated player in the Pine Belt,” Jones said. “He may be a little short at 5-(foot)-10, but he’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s our leader on offense.”
North Forrest also boasts one of area’s top quarterbacks in Daylan Croom, and another of the top receivers in Leon Jones.
“I think it all starts with Daylyn Croom,” Dillon said. “He’s a three-year starter for us now, and his IQ about the game has really increased. He’s kind of a dual threat. He can make plays with his feet and his arm. We expect him to do some good things.”
The Eagles boast seven returning starters, “but we’re real young at the other spots,” Dillon said.
“But we’re up for the challenge. We know it’s going to take a while for those guys to get those first-game jitters out, to get comfortable and adjust to the speed of the game.”
Lumberton returns defensive keys in Edwards at middle linebacker (more than 100 tackles past two season), senior noseguard Dakota Walters (more than 150 tackles in 2016) and senior defensive back Kee’Von Fells (two-year starter).
“We’re about where we thought we’d be at this point,” Jones said. “Our motto everyday is just work on us, take care of us, and if we do that, I’ll be happy, and we’ll be OK.”