Despite posting back-to-back winning conference records, Ben Penny has watched his Triton squad be among the last football teams left out in each of the past two selection days.
ERWIN — Despite posting back-to-back winning conference records, Ben Penny has watched his Triton squad be among the last football teams left out in each of the past two selection days.
His Hawks went 4-6 overall and 4-3 in All American Conference play a year ago, only to miss the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs for a second straight season.
With 16 returning starters back in the mix this fall, Penny spoke with a sense of urgency about ending a drought that dates back to 2017.
“We got to get in the playoffs. We got a playoff football team,” said the veteran coach following a scrimmage this week.
Five first-team All-Record performers return to form Penny’s core – Nathan McKoy, Camauri McDougald, J.J. Cowan, Carter Daughtry and Ross Stevens. Among those, Cowan (best defensive back) and Ross Stevens (top linebacker) were named award winners.
Stevens represents a hungry group of upperclassmen who have one thing on their minds before they leave the prep ranks.
“Get wins ... we gotta win, it’s our last go-round,” said the senior linebacker, who broke a modern-day program record for most total tackles in a season.
“It really hurts not making the playoffs, especially being so close ... But I think that’s just fuel for the fire, get us hyped up to win games and get us to the playoffs.”
The graduation of another first-team selection, Noah Jackson, has allowed Stevens to be more vocal for a veteran-laden defense.
His coaches have lauded a “tremendous” improvement in football IQ, having embraced film study while devouring the playbook this summer.
“Ross is a flat-out playmaker. Now he has become the quarterback of the defense,” Penny said.
“That’s gonna be scary for opponents — a guy that had (118) tackles last year, who now has an awareness of what’s going on. We’re looking for him to have a huge year.”
Sprinkle in McKoy’s 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, along with Cowan and McDougald’s eight combined interceptions, and you get a unit that Penny says should be “most improved” on his team.
Meanwhile, both Cowan and McDougald power Penny’s unique Wing-T offense that brings back the same cast of characters with the exception of key players up front. The junior duo totaled 1,579 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
Shifty starting QB Jalen Evans brings his 729 yards from scrimmage and eight total TDs into what looks to be a promising senior campaign.
The experienced bunch has also benefited from having a pair of preseason tune-ups, having gone without an inter-squad scrimmage the past two seasons.
“Practice can sometimes drag a little bit because we got three-year starters all over the field. It’s like reading the same book,” Penny said. “Going against somebody else was really important for us.”
Of the Hawks’ six losses last year, they held an early lead in almost every matchup and even clung to a fourth-quarter advantage in a few of them. Conditioning during and after practices has been tailored to solve some of the late-game issues.
It’s a strategy Penny portrays as paramount if his team will be the program’s first since 2011 to win a state playoffs contest.
“I believe, if we can put together 48 minutes, we’re gonna have a good year and be able to play into November,” he said.
Triton starts its 2022 journey at home Aug. 19, welcoming Jordan (Durham).
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.