Plenty on the line as rivals Rose, Conley meet on Friday

JH Rose Tri-Captain David Sawyer (64) says the Rampants have been preparing this week for the intensity that comes with Friday's game against crosstown rival DH Conley. (252Buzz file photo by Bill Hudson)

By Mike Grizzard

David Sawyer didn’t need any reminders this week to know who is next on J.H. Rose’s schedule. Everything he saw on social media, heard in the halls at school and sensed at practice pointed to rivalry week and the annual showdown with D.H. Conley.

“There’s always a different vibe,” said Sawyer, a senior offensive lineman and tri-captain who will play in the Blue-Grey All-American Game at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 28. “It’s always a little bit more hostile, a little bit more intense. We work a little bit harder. Everybody’s going to come out on the field with a different level of intensity. At practice we’ve got music playing and everything preparing for the sound and making sure we’re ready for the atmosphere that’s going to be there on Friday night.”

That atmosphere -- with brisk temperatures expected and two rowdy student cheering sections -- promises to be electric with plenty on the line in Friday’s 7 p.m. clash at Percy-Daniels Field. The Rampants and Vikings each bring in 5-2 overall records, and each has its sights set on the Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A regular-season title. Rose is 2-1 in league play with its lone loss to South Central. Conley is 3-0 in league play but still must face the unbeaten Falcons (7-0, 3-0 ECC) in the season finale.

Conley and Rose have split their last four meetings, but the Vikings hold a 4-2 advantage in the last six games. Sawyer certainly would like to go out with a win against his biggest rival, as well as atone for a humbling 49-13 loss last year.

“With Conley, we hate each other but also have respect for each other,” he said. “We respect what we’ve done over the past four years. I wouldn’t say that we really smack talk, but it’s we want to show that we’re better than you because we do respect them as a program.”

Fellow offensive lineman Storm James, a junior and also a tri-captain, said Rose has tried to deflect some of the hype and focus more on basics than banter this week.

“With Conley, it’s going to be a different atmosphere regardless with people around school saying like, ‘This is a must-win game,’” James said. “But around practice, we still go through the same drills. We all just try to make sure we’re ready to win any game we’ve got.

“Once you get into the game you’ve just got to go at it,” James said. “You don’t pay attention to the extra pressure that’s on you. You’ve just got to go at it.”

For Rose head coach Dave Wojtecki, a win in Rose’s rivalry game only helps build on the goals of the season, which include a return to the playoffs and checking off wins against teams that knocked off the Rampants last year. Rose is 4-2 in redemption games, knocking off New Hanover, Laney, Hunt and Charles B. Aycock, but falling to Havelock and South Central. A win over Conley would put Rose in position for a home playoff game with dates against Eastern Wayne (3-4, 1-2) and New Bern (2-4, 1-1) remaining.

“We have talked about if we win this, we’ll probably have home field during the playoffs,” Wojtecki said. “But it’s a rivalry game. We want to win. We want to go 1-0 (this week). We want to improve our record. We want to defeat everybody that beat us last year. Every little thing about it is big.”

Conley poses a stern test, especially East Carolina University recruit C.J. Johnson, who has accounted for 1,364 total yards and 23 touchdowns. The 6-2, 215-pound receiver has 42 catches for 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 337 yards and nine touchdowns rushing.

Junior Nick Hamilton has stepped in at quarterback following the record-setting four-year career of Holton Ahlers, who is now at ECU. Hamilton has completed 90 of 170 passes for 1,662 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“C.J. is their motor,” Wojtecki said. “He makes a lot of things happen. He’s a very talented football player. The quarterback throws the ball really well. … Defensively they like to apply a lot of pressure, so we’ve got to be able to handle those things. Conley’s Conley. They’re going to be ready to play. They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be tough. We’ve just got to be ready for all that.”

Rose counters with a balanced attack led by senior quarterback Grant Charles Jarman, a deep receiving corps and a triple-threat backfield that has provided some punch to the running game this year. The Rampants struggled running the ball a year ago, averaging 133.8 yards per game, but have amassed 231.9 this year, highlighted by 410 yards in a 55-0 win at Southern Wayne last week.

“As an offensive line group, we hated that we could not run the ball last year,” Sawyer said. “ … We wanted to make sure that changed because that reflects on us. We wanted to have a great reflection of what we are and how we work every game.”

Senior Grant Humphreys rushed for 247 yards on just nine carries last week and now has a team-high 616 yards on 78 carries with seven touchdowns. Four of his eight receptions also have resulted in scores.

Senior Brice Bizzell has rushed for 315 yards and six touchdowns, and junior Shaquan Perry has rushed for 255 yards.

“I think we have three really good running backs,” Wojtecki said. “… They do a great job. They punish people that try to tackle them. That’s the mentality that we’ve tried to instill in our backs since I’ve been here and it’s nice to see those guys doing those things.”

Jarman has completed 96 of 170 passes for 1,229 yards with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Senior Ben Harris leads Rose receivers with 25 catches for 382 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jake Henry Rogers has 22 receptions for 355 yards and four touchdowns.

The Rampants have been their worst enemy at times with penalties, especially personal fouls that have led to three ejections. Sawyer said Rose must avoid those mistakes against COnley, especially with emotions already running high.

“We have to harness our anger, harness that aggression and use it on the field in a productive way,” he said.

Mike Grizzard of Winterville has more than 30 years of experience as a writer for both print and digital publications in the areas of sports, business, news, faith and personal profiles. Contact Mike at 252-916-4206.