After going 12-0 and winning a Group 3 championship in 2011, the Timber Creek Regional High School football team was widely considered the favorite to repeat this year, even with the move to Group 4.
The expectations were based on the team’s seven Division I recruits, as well as a surrounding nucleus with championship experience. So, when the Chargers started off the 2012 season at 2-2, outsiders wondered if the team could make it back to the top of the mountain.
Inside the Timber Creek huddle, there were no such concerns.
“As a staff, we felt like we had the physical pieces necessary to repeat or at least have the opportunity to repeat, and the kids felt that way also,” said head coach Rob Hinson.
On Saturday, the Chargers get that chance.
No. 1 Timber Creek travels to Rowan University to take on No. 2 Kingsway for a 7 p.m. start.
The Chargers (9-2) look every bit like the favorites they were when the season started, having won five straight. Hinson said his team learned a valuable lesson during losses to Camden Catholic and Williamstown, and worked hard to make sure the ship remained straight the rest of the way.
“The biggest thing is they learned they couldn’t take anything for granted,” Hinson said. “Kids are going to be kids and they read the paper and hear the expectations and things that were said about them, and because of that they might not have been focused enough.
"They knew they were returning champs and picked to return to the championship and weren’t as focused as they needed to be. That comes back on me and the staff for not having the players focused and ready to go. Those losses kind of opened their eyes that teams weren’t going to lay down and give it to them. It taught them that they had to wake up and keep working hard.”
Timber Creek will have to contend with a Dragons rushing attack that has caught fire the last few weeks. Kingsway has a workhorse back in Ray Lawry, who rushed for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the Dragons' Group 4 semifinal victory against Lacey. Lawry has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
Hinson said the team must also be aware of Lawry's backfield mate, Brendon Irving, who has piled up more than 600 yards and seven scores.
“They are a potent 1-2 punch,” he said “Lawry gets most of the credit, but (Irving) runs really hard and is close being just as fast. They can hit you inside and outside so you can’t really key on one guy, because they have a weapon equally as impressive.”
The Dragons are making their first appearance in a sectional final since the school won a Group 2 championship in 2001. Prior to this year’s run to the finals, Kingsway had won just one playoff game since that championship appearance.
Kingsway and Timber Creek had similar paths to the playoffs. Kingsway opened the season with a 25-19 loss to Shawnee and stood at 2-2 after four games before going on a three-game winning streak. The Dragons' final loss came to Williamstown, 20-16, on Nov. 11. Williamstown—which is competing in the Group 5 finals—is 11-0, including a 26-18 win over Timber Creek.
The Dragons' defense has been solid, but not spectacular this season, giving up an average of just over 19 points per game.
“They are pretty sound in the things they do and the big thing is they don’t give up big plays,” Hinson said. “These are high school kids and if you can make them go 80 yards, 70 yards, 60 yards, then they are bound to make a mistake. That’s their approach and they do a good job of limiting the big scores.”
Hinson credited his team with having a phenomenal few days of practice leading up the game. He said his players have exhibited razor-sharp focus, while also showing a looseness that shows the pressure is not getting to them.
All that is left is winning another championship.
“These guys have been wired for sound,” he said. “It has been our most spirited, most focused week of practice we have had in a long, long time. … They are ready to play and ready to win this thing.”