ROCKINGHAM — Purnell Swett coach Mark Heil doesn’t shy away from battling tough opponents. In fact, his Rams may have the state’s most difficult schedule.
In its opening six games, Purnell Swett’s opponents are a combined 26-12. Include Richmond’s record to the mix and the Rams are playing teams which have won nearly 73 percent of its contests to date.
Heil knows it has been a difficult five-week stretch for his squad with games against Hoggard (6-0), New Hanover (5-1), Scotland (5-1) and now Richmond (6-0). Purnell Swett’s only “breather” during this time was a 34-0 victory over its in-county 1A rival South Robeson.
“I think we have played four teams that are ranked in the top 15, if not the top 10,” Heil said. “I think I saw somewhere that our schedule is one of the toughest in the state. That’s not really our problem, it’s that we aren’t playing very well right now. We have had a winning tradition over the last six years and we aren’t playing well. Some of that is my fault.”
Despite the Rams’ 2-4 overall mark and 0-1 start to the Southeastern Conference season, Richmond coach Paul Hoggard knows it will be tough going into Pembroke and walking away with a victory.
“Purnell Swett always plays Richmond tough,” Hoggard said. “Talking to Mark, he says his kids get really excited about two games all year — Lumberton and Richmond.”
The Raiders will once again be battling a conference foe shorthanded tonight. Leading rusher Dakwa Nichols will miss his second straight game with a sprained foot. Raheem Bowden, who leads the team with seven touchdown receptions, will also be on the sideline after suffering a dislocated right elbow on a kickoff return against Hoke County.
With Bowden out, Hoggard said Tafari Rose and Mike Rush will move up the depth chart. Rose has three catches for 39 yards and a touchdown, while Rush has one reception for 27 yards.
In the backfield, Diquon Cox started in place of Nichols and rushed for a career-high 119 yards and a score on 12 carries. Elijah Goodwin only touched the ball five times, but added 76 yards and a touchdown. Against the Bucks, the Raiders rushed for 300 yards for the fifth time this season.
“We are very fortunate to have been playing a bunch of backs since Day 1,” Hoggard said. “Those sophomores last year are now juniors and that extra year really makes a big difference. It hurts to have someone like Dakwa out, but we are still fortunate to be deep at that position.”
Hoggard added his team lost focus at times after jumping out to a 28-0 first-quarter lead against Hoke. The lack of focus is once again a sticking point for Hoggard and his staff.
“I thought our execution in the first quarter of the game from a focus and intensity was as well as we have been all year, maybe in a long while,” Hoggard said. “We failed to execute at points during the rest of the game. If you are physically getting beat in a rep, that’s one thing. If you don’t execute because of something you didn’t do, that’s something else.
“That’s what keeps you up at night, trying to find a way to get a teenager to focus for a complete game. That’s the challenge for us as a staff. If I could figure it out, I would write a book and become a millionaire.”
Just like Richmond, Purnell Swett will not be at full-strength coming into tonight’s contest. Heil said his leading rusher, Andrew Hill, is likely out for the remainder season with an injury.
“He’s had ankle problems all year,” Heil said. “There were too many question marks about him being ready this week so I decided to shut him down. Plus, this will help him bear down academically as well.
“We almost ran out of running backs last week against Scotland. So I don’t know what we are going to do. Maybe Richmond will let me borrow some of their running backs.”
Hill’s absence will cause a bit of a problem for Richmond defensive coordinator James Johnson. As Johnson was watching video of Purnell Swett, he noticed Hill was the main focus of its offense. With him out, Johnson will have no idea how the Rams may lineup or who will become the focal point.
“They’re a multiple-set offense,” Johnson said. “They will spread you out, they can go to the option or line up in the ‘I.’ It has been a tough game to scout.”
Johnson believes his unit is beginning to come together at the right time. After allowing 56 points in the opening two games of the year, the Raiders have surrendered 35 in the last four outings.
“We are really starting to understand things,” Johnson said. “After beating Hoke, I told the defense we have to play that way four more times.”
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.