Challenging, beastly schedule prepares Kenan for postseason
By Ryan Hanchett
Published in Sports on November 11, 2009 1:46 PM
Coming off a state championship in 2007 and a second-round playoff appearance last season, James Kenan had plenty of momentum heading into its 2009 campaign.
But when head coach Ken Avent Jr. strode into the locker room before the Tigers' season-opening contest, he saw an unfamiliar sight. Just three varsity players remained from the team's state championship team, and in the veterans' places were a core of inexperienced sophomores and juniors.
"We had a lot of learning to do early in the season," said Avent Jr. after a recent practice. "I really think playing such a strong non-conference schedule helped some of our guys to get better at a fast pace."
Back-to-back victories over perennial power Clinton and athletic Jones Senior were followed by consecutive losses to East Bladen and East Duplin. Those four teams finished a combined 32-12 during regular-season play and each qualified for the postseason.
East Bladen (11-0 overall) is the No. 1 seed in the 2-A (small-school) championships, while East Duplin (11-0) is the top seed in the 2-AA (large-school) division.
The beastly schedule continued in the newly-aligned Tri-County 1-A Conference. Pender and Heide Trask, both playoff qualifiers, joined the league which already included perennial powers Hobbton, Midway and Kenan's long-time archrival -- Wallace-Rose Hill.
Seven league opponents combined for 42 regular-season wins.
"I really think our conference is one of the best at the 1-A level," said Avent Jr. "It's tough and each week you line up across from a strong team that is capable of winning the ballgame."
During the early portion of the league schedule, the Tigers decided to make a change at quarterback. Avent Jr. turned to sophomore Parker Jones to handle the snaps, which freed up athletic Dasmine Smith to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
Smith lined up at quarterback, running back and receiver at different points in the season and has shown his big-play ability from each position. Along with hard-running tailback Victor Parker, Smith has helped steady the Tigers' attack and taken pressure off the team's young signal caller.
"Parker has only been a starter for about five weeks now and he has really come a long way," said Avent Jr. "When we do a good job blocking and Victor and Dasmine are able to make plays, it allows Parker to be at his best."
Kenan concluded regular-season play with back-to-back losses against Hobbton and Wallace-Rose Hill. Just 10 points separated the Tigers from an 8-3 record and a higher seeding in the 1-AA playoffs. Despite the outcomes, Avent Jr. has seen his team improve and play quality ball over the last eight quarters.
He hopes the trend continues in the postseason.
"Honestly, I feel like we are the best that we have been all season," said Avent Jr. "Our defense has really stepped up and we have developed some things on offense that have been productive. It hasn't necessarily shown on the scoreboard, but its been clear to me that this team is improving."
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