Carvers Bay made the first step.
Now, the Bears believe they have the potential to make it all the way back.
Two seasons after missing the playoffs for the first time in school history and one year after losing in the first round of the postseason, an experienced yet young group of players is ready to return the program to what it was accustomed to.
“We’ve got a pretty good nucleus to work with, but you have to remember they’re still young,” coach Nate Thompson said before the start of his 13th season. “They kind of took their lumps last year. I got a feeling that if we can get things clicking and avoid the injury bug, we could make some waves.”
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The Bears fell to longtime rival Hemingway in the opening round of the playoffs in 2011. And although the two teams will square off at least once this season, it will be in a different region.
Carvers Bay was shifted over to Region VII-A, a league that also includes Scott’s Branch, C.E. Murray, Timmonsville and East Clarendon. Scott’s Branch won Class A Division II state titles in 2008 and 2010, and Hemingway went to the Class A Division I championship game a season ago.
The only group of the bunch that didn’t qualify for the postseason was East Clarendon.
“There’s really no slouches in this region,” Thompson said. “We just kind of went from the frying pan to the fire. I tell people I don’t think it did us any favors.”
Maybe not, but it’s also appears as if the Bears will have more to work with.
Defensive tackle Naquez Pringle, a junior, has offers from two BCS schools and counting. He’ll anchor a five-man defensive front that could turn into a dominating force that once propelled the Bears to two state championships.
Da’Shawn Aiken, who is going to be the primary quarterback for the first time this year, will also be back at cornerback one year after piling up 27 tackles, three interceptions and three pass deflections.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears will have returning running backs Devin Cuttino (725 yards, nine touchdowns) and Hikeem Hampton (403 yards, five touchdowns). It will be up to the pair of juniors to get Aiken ready for the position.
But the pressure of making sure this isn’t a run-only team will fall on the starting quarterback. In hopes of adding some balance, Thompson said once again this team will have to make use of some solid receiving threats on the outside.
It’s a challenge Aiken said he’s ready for, in part because of those two running backs.
“If we can throw, we’ll get a better chance to run. We have more athletes,” Aiken said. “[Cuttino and Hampton] make it easier. They understand what they’re doing. And there’s not just one of them.”
It should also help that the Bears will also have plenty of size up front. D’Vonte Gamble (6-foot-5, 265 pounds), Shawn Lawrence (6-foot-3, 270) and Pringle will all be a part of an offensive line that should for the most part dwarf opposing defenses.
Packaged together, Carvers Bay may just have a chance of making sure that winless streak in the playoffs stops at two years.
“If we can get our kids acclimated on what we do well, we can go a long way,” Thompson said. “The major things is getting our people in the right places and getting them in the right place to play.
“It’s a matter of luck and matter of breaks and a matter of healthiness.”