This year’s football season has been full of highs and lows for each school in Sampson County, from close losses, to injuries and unpredictable weather. Out of all this, two teams have managed to earn themselves a spot in the upcoming playoffs.
The first is the No. 6-seeded Lakewood Leopards, who at 9-2, have been playing on another level all year. Their veteran offense line and running back Jahdon Smith, who gained 1,500 yards on the season, and a shutdown defense that has pitched seven shutouts, helped the Leopards earn their spot in the 2017 1AA Football Championship.
“We’ve had a great year. Unfortunate that we had a couple losses in close games, but we managed to be playing for the conference championship at the end of the season,” said Lakewood head coach James Lewis.
While it’s true the Leopards finished 9-2 overall and 4-1 in their conference play, their seeding was a little lower than some expected. Lewis is not surprised at all.
“No real surprise there,” Lewis said. “Since we ended up not winning the conference championship, we didn’t get a top seed.”
Despite not getting a top seed, they did clinch a home playoff game for the first round. They will be facing a familiar opponent as well, one they got the better of during the regular season — the Pender Patriots.
“We’ve played Pender before, during the opening week of the season. They’ve improved greatly since then, have a good running back and are good up front,” Lewis remarked.
The Leopards are pretty good up front too and have a exceptional running back of their own in Smith, both dominating all year. Their O-line is comprised mostly of returners who set the tone for them all season. This wall of a line was led by Hunter Culbreth, Luke Brewer, Tristan Holmes, Pablo Marcias, Joshua Carter and Bryce Tanner.
Smith was the second best running back in terms of yardage in the entire conference. The 5-foot-10, 186-pound junior rushed for a total of 1,590 yards on 194 carries. He ended the season averaging 8.2 yards a carry, 144.5 yards per game and amassed 26 touchdowns.
The surprise player for the Leopards ended up being at one of their most important offensive positions. Quarterback Cameron Sessoms emerged from the bench after an injury to the starting quarterback and ended up being a huge leader. Though he came off the bench, he led the conference in passing with 752 yards on 44-of-80 passing with five touchdowns to four interceptions, averaging 68.4 yards a game.
Leopards’ receiver Andre Rich led the conference in receiving, gaining 245 total yards on 15 catches, with a touchdown, averaging 16.3 yards a catch.
As scary as their offense is, their defense is a true threat, led by two-way standout Brewer, who tallied 95 total tackles during the regular season, and Shemar Tucker, who led the conference in takeaways with three interceptions. The defense garnered seven shutouts and helped the Leopards to an undefeated record at home.
“We are excited about the playoffs and we’ve got to make sure we take each game one step at a time. We’re glad that our first game will be at home, where we have been undefeated all year at 6-0. If our offense continues to execute like what we have been and we continue to be led by our defense, I think will be all right for the playoffs,” Lewis concluded.
The Lakewood Leopards host the Pender Patriots at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The second county team looking to make some noise in the 2017 NCHSAA 2A Football Championship in none other than the Clinton Dark Horses. They may have had a disappointing regular season compared to the high bar that has been set in recent years, finishing 5-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play, but they clinched the No. 9 seed.
“We thought we would be better than we were,” said Clinton head coach Bob Lewis. “We expected to be no worse than 7-3, but it didn’t turn out that way and we ended up 5-5. That’s just the way it is sometimes.”
The Horses won’t have the luxury of playing at home for their first playoff game like the Leopards. Traveling almost five hours away, they head near the ocean to take on the No. 8-seed First Flight Nighthawks (8-3).
“While it’s true we have to go way out there to First Flight, it doesn’t matter because we’ve got a spot,” said Lewis. “So it seems someone thought enough of us to give us a shot in the playoffs. I know one thing, though, traveling hours away to play in a playoff game beats sitting at home and not playing.”
Though the Horses offense didn’t lead any category statistically in the conference they run the ball well and their passing game is underrated. Quarterback Kris Williams ended the regular season as the third-best quarterback in the conference in terms of yardage. He went 30-of-65 passing with 431 yards, six TDs, three interceptions.
The 5-foot-8, 260-pound junior Jalen Smith carried the Horses in rushing this season with 670 total yards and nine touchdowns. The surprise production they got from the speedy transfer Donte Mclellan also helped as well.
“Off the top of my head I’d have to say that Donte was one our standouts,” Lewis remarked. “He wasn’t from here originally; he transferred in and really helped us out this year at running back and defensive back.”
Even if their offense didn’t have massive numbers, the defense was another story. Despite being young and only having four returners to look to, they played outstanding all season, holding powerhouse scoring machine schools like Wallace-Rose Hill and East Duplin, who have scored 70-plus points on teams, in check.
Led by conference tackles leader junior Jaivah Cruse, who had 93 total tackles, one interception and averaged 9.3 tackles a game. With the help of A.J. Williams and his 87 tackles and the second best takeaway defensive back in the conference in Trey Warren (four interceptions), the defense will be the driving force for the Dark Horses’ playoff success.
“Our defense is young with only four returners and it took them a while to adjust, but they continue to keep it going and improve, which is what we’ll need going forward,” said Lewis. “It was a fast season and was over in the blink of an eye. Even so, we have to keep getting better every day and that’s something we just got to do.”
The Dark Horses make their long journey to First Flight Friday night, facing the Nighthawks at 7:30 p.m.
Reach Michael Hardison at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @SampsonInd.