11/08/06 — A tall hill to climb: Rams face defending state champion, while Hawks head to state-ranked Southern Vance

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A tall hill to climb: Rams face defending state champion, while Hawks head to state-ranked Southern Vance

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 8, 2006 1:47 PM

SNOW HILL -- Fourth-year Greene Central coach Jim Bob Bryant anticipated a top-six seed and a first-round home game for the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 2-A (small-school) football playoffs.

The Rams (9-2) got the home game, but drew a seventh seed and a tough opening-round opponent -- reigning state champion Clinton.

"Year in and year out, they're one of the premier teams in our state in 2-A football," said Bryant. "It's a good chance to see where our program is right now by playing a team of Clinton's calibre."

The 10th-seeded Darkhorses are 6-5 overall, and have endured losses against four perennial powers -- Thomasville, Wallace-Rose Hill, East Duplin and East Bladen. Those four teams have 40-plus wins combined this season.

"People are saying that Clinton is down, but they're really not when you look at their schedule," said Bryant. "Clinton is still Clinton. It looks like they're putting it all together just in time for the playoffs."

Senior Nick Cooper (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) has once again emerged the Darkhorses' top backfield runner. He's joined by Earl Kemp, a smaller and explosive back, who is 5-4 and 145 pounds.

Brian Williams and Phillip Strickland, a pair of NCPreps.com all-state selections last season, spearhead the defense. Williams (6-3, 205) is a defensive back and Strickland (5-10, 215) plays linebacker.

"They pose a lot of problems for us all over the field," said Bryant. "They're athletic on defense with a really strong running game behind Cooper. They usually show man coverage and fly around to the ball on defense.

"It's going to be a challenge for us Friday night. We have to play our best ball."

Clinton's man coverage scheme, according to Bryant, is similar to the strategy used by James Kenan earlier this season. The Tigers, however, played some zone. The Darkhorses prefer an in-your-face, bump-and-run tactic.

Bryant expects to see a five-man front that features two good corners and a trio of run-stopping linebackers. Rams quarterback Cameron Shelton, who has thrown for 1,665 yards and 16 touchdowns, must continue to show his efficiency under center.

Completions might not be plentiful for Harrison Walston (45 catches, 707 yards) and Curtis Braswell (30 catches, 548 yards). However, the duo needs to be ready for either the short pass underneath or the long ball, depending on what the Clinton defense gives them.

J.J. Thompson is 29 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark rushing.

"We're going to try to spread them out and hit them where they're not," said Bryant. "We're not changing practice from what we've done in the regular season. We're working on keeping our balance on offense and stopping the run on defense.

"Those are our two biggest priorities right now."

It's the second playoff meeting between the two schools. Clinton emerged victorious 42-7 in 2001 and is seeking its 60th postseason victory since 1972. The 10th-ranked Rams are 9-16 all-time in the playoffs, including a 4-3 worksheet under Bryant's direction.

North Lenoir at

Southern Vance

LaGRANGE -- Shoulders slumped in disappointment and faces stained with tears, North Lenoir's seniors trudged to the locker room after what appeared to be a season-ending loss to Greene Central last Friday.

They thought they had broken the program's four-year playoff streak.

Not necessarily.

Head coach Wayne Jackson had several conversations with Que Tucker at the NCHSAA office during the week. Jackson and Tucker had an inkling that the Hawks' season wouldn't end ... yet.

When conference presidents began filing final standings, North Lenoir and four other schools had three wins overall. Since there were not enough qualifying teams to fill out the bracket, the rulebook stated the next seeding criteria was conference win percentage.

The Hawks ended up 2-3 in the Eastern Plains Conference and had the best percentage among the five teams. They seized the 16th seed -- the final at-large spot available in the eastern 2-AA (large-school) draw.

North Lenoir (3-8) travels to top-seeded Southern Vance, the Northern Carolina Conference champion, on Friday. It's the first-ever meeting between the two schools and kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Southern is ranked No. 9 in the latest AssociatedPress prep poll.

"I had an idea before we played Friday that there was a possibility of getting in," said Jackson, whose all-time playoff record is 2-3. "I didn't mention it to anybody because I didn't want to get their hopes up. I wanted us to focus on being as competitive as we could with Greene Central.

"We had some really upset kids in the locker room after the game."

Those frowns have been nothing but smiles during practice this week. Jackson anticipates seeing athletic skill people and huge linemen on both sides of the ball -- two characteristics synonymous with NCC teams.

The Raiders have speed at the skill positions and several players who were members of last year's track team that excelled on the regional level.

Jackson thinks the Hawks have an edge on the line.

"We have to use our quickness as an advantage so they can't use their size," he said. "We've played people just as good as they are. We just have to step up and play well to beat that calibre of football team."

North Lenoir is the first public school in Lenoir County history to make five consecutive trips to the playoffs. Several Hawks supporters say the team shouldn't be there.

"A lot of people say we don't deserve to go, but that's a matter of opinion," said Jackson. "We'll use this as a week to make our program better. I brought some JVs up to give them an extra week of practice, and hopefully we can make it two weeks."