08/21/08 — Football preview: James Kenan

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Football preview: James Kenan

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on August 21, 2008 1:35 PM

All folks in the Kenansville, Faison, Magnolia and Warsaw areas understand defense wins championships.

But just how good James Kenan will be in 2008 may rest on the shaky shoulders of its offense. It's top two rushers graduated, part of a 29-member senior class that seized the program's first state championship in nearly five decades.

Can the Tigers answer the encore?

"Every year is different, but you try to use what we did last year to springboard you into this year," said third-year Kenan head coach Ken Avent Jr. "I think the community is excited and we've got things going the way we want them. I think they're ready to see what we can do.

"Everybody is excited when football season rolls around. It's important (to everyone) and it's a fun football area."

But the team will miss one integral part of last year's squad -- Derrick Barden. Expected to appear on several preseason All-State lists, Barden was killed by a stray bullet nearly two months ago.

Avent Jr. said the team has missed Barden's presence. The seniors haven't decided how they'll honor their fallen comrade this season. His jersey will not be worn.

"I think the biggest thing we can do as a team to honor Derrick is to really practice and play the way he did," said Avent Jr. "He went at everything 100 percent and he led a good example for us.

"It has been tough."

Five starters return on offense.

And this year's opponents are jumping for joy that speedsters Brandon Satchell and Stedman Mathis, who combined for nearly 3,000 yards, are gone. The duo was part of a 29-player senior class.

Darius Heslip returns to the backfield. Joining him are Mike Smith, Anthony Kennedy, Alex Monk and Tyshawn Faison. Monk and Heslip, says Avent Jr., will most likely play on both sides of the ball.

"We feel like we've definitely got some big holes to fill on both sides of the ball," said Avent Jr. "We're not as deep as we were last year and that would be our weakness. But the strength is our offensive linemen have some experience.

"They've had a good offseason and worked really hard. But you don't really know what you've got until you get to play somebody."

Monk, Heslip, hard-hitting linebacker Josh Hicks and Rogers return on defense. Avent Jr. expects the quartet to show leadership on and off the field, especially during practice.

James Kenan's staple en route to its state title was defense. Once the offense got ahead two or three touchdowns, the Tigers clamped down on opposing offenses and gave them little working room.

"We want to play good defense," said Avent Jr. "Last year, we didn't turn the ball over and put our defense in a hole. We played good special teams, too. I hope we can continue to do that."

However, he's not sure how this year's team will manage a game. Avoiding turnovers and injuries will be crucial to the Tigers' success. They've won 31 of their last 32 games, including 10 straight in Super Six Conference play.

That's not to mention a 9-1 record in the postseason and back-to-back appearances in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1-AA (large-school) championship game.

"We play a tough non-conference schedule and it's tough to win all six of those games," said Avent Jr. "There is going to be some point where we have adversity and it's important to see how we'll get through that.

"Our senior leadership has been good so far."