PIKEVILLE – There are certain benchmarks on the calendar that sports fans use to mark the time.
Major League Baseball has Opening Day.
The NFL has its annual Thursday night opener featuring the reigning Super Bowl champions.
For high school football fans here in Wayne County there’s the Little River Rivalry.
The annual clash between Rosewood and Charles B. Aycock signifies the start of the high school football season.
Friday night’s opener at Hardy Talton Stadium marks the 42nd meeting all-time between the Eagles and Golden Falcons. Rosewood and Aycock have opened their respective seasons against one another in 12 of the past 14 years. The Golden Falcons have won 13 of those matchups, including a 32-26 victory in 2022. The Eagle’s last victory in the series came in 2021.
The game can be heard locally on FM 98.3 WGBR, or online at Goldsborodailynews.com, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
For the first time since 2006, Robert Britt won’t be roaming the Rosewood sideline as head coach. Britt stepped down last December following the Eagles’ playoff run that culminated in a loss at Tarboro in the 1-A East finals.
Britt had a record of 91-101at Rosewood, and along with the 2022 1-A East finals appearance, he also coached the Eagles to the 1-A East finals in 2018.
Inhering the reins to the Rosewood program is Josh Smith, a 2000 Rosewood graduate and former Eagles’ quarterback. Smith spent the past 10 seasons as Rosewood’s offensive coordinator, and has called being the head coach at his alma mater his “dream job.”
Smith’s mother, Jo Ann, a former art teacher at Rosewood, who is currently battling cancer and multiple sclerosis, and his father Steve, a long time high school football official, aren’t about to miss their son’s head coaching debut.
As 7 p.m. approaches and his players get set to take the field moments before kickoff against Aycock, Smith admits the combination of facing a rival he once played against, finally realizing the dream of coaching his alma mater and having his parents there to witness it all, will have his emotions running high.
“I do know it’s going to be a special moment for me,” Smith said. “It’s a dream come true. To be able to be in that moment against a county rival who I played against, and who I understand and who I have great relationships with their coaches, it’s going to be an awesome moment. Win or lose, the fact is it’s about putting our guys in situations to be successful. Emotions will be high and we’ve put in a lot of work, and we’re just hoping what we’ve done up to that point will give us a chance to be successful in the end.”
Both Rosewood and Aycock have new starting quarterbacks. Gio Pineda, a junior transfer from Spring Creek, has earned the starting job for the Eagles. Pineda won a quarterback competition over the summer with Hunter Sasser.
Smith believes Pineda’s running ability and his accuracy, particularly on deep passes, gives opposing defenses plenty to worry about.
Senior Ray Horlacher, who served as a backup to Ethan Brock in 2022, finally gets his turn as the Golden Falcons’ starting quarterback. Brock threw for over 1,000 yards with 14 touchdown passes a season ago. Aycock head coach Tom Zietlow believes Horlacher’s preparation has him ready to seize the moment.
“Ray has had some good experience in the offense and he’s been around the program for three years between JV and varsity,” Zietlow said. “I think he grew last year in the backup role, he’s had a good summer and he’s ready to go. I think he’s also going to give us a dual-threat option.”
Joining Horlacher in the Aycock backfield should be a bevy of different backs, as the Golden Falcons seek to fill the void left by Daniel Frederick. Frederick rushed for more than 1,300 yards with 16 touchdowns last season as a senior. Senior Tristan Keaton and junior Ricky Elliot are expected to share the majority of the carriers, with plenty of eager underclassmen waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile, Rosewood returns senior running back David Lamm, who rushed for more than 1,900 yards in 2022, with 25 touchdowns. Lamm rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of the Eagles’ 15 games last season. Smith, who will continue in his role as offensive play-caller, has no shortage of weapons at receiver to design plays for. Senior Micah Cox, a difficult matchup for defenders in space, leads a talented receiver group along with Sammy Gardner, Jassir Miles, Sasser, Julius Coltrane and the versatile Talan Collins.
“Talan is our Swiss Army Knife,” Smith said. “We can line him up all over the place and he can do so many different things for us. He’s a real weapon in our offense.”
Aycock’s receiver group is tasked with replacing D.J. and Kam Prince, brothers who led the Golden Falcons in receiving a year ago, and combined for over 900 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
Caleb Frederick and Alden Headley, have been the Golden Falcons’ most dynamic receivers throughout the summer, with Headley turning in multiple explosive plays in Aycock’s scrimmages.
Rosewood returns junior defensive lineman Micah Bell and senior linebacker Kaleb Davis to a unit that held opponents to 14 points or fewer eight times last season.
Dallas Bailey, Travis Burton and Jadon Best are expected to anchor the Golden Faclons’ defensive front. Junior linebackers Antwain Grantham and Jasaan Williams, who combined for 157 tackles last season, are described by Zietlow as, “an extension of the coaching staff on the field.”
Sophomores Jeremy Johnson, Jeremiah Hendricks and junior Kemauri Lewis are all starters in the Aycock secondary making their varsity debuts.
“One thing our defense has over our offense, if you look at the starting kids out there, seven or eight of them have playing experience on the varsity level,” Zietlow said. “That always goes a long way, especially early in the season. Our defensive front played a lot of snaps.”