Unfazed by 2017 struggles, Panthers return to business

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KENLY — In two short seasons as the head coach at North Johnston High, Jon Riba has come close to the summit of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference. He’s also stood one step away from the league’s basement.

But after a solid nonconference showing last season (4-2) gave way to a backslide in EPC play en route to a 5-6 record, there was no rush to hit the panic button on the outfield grass of Doug Parnell Field on Wednesday evening.

“We lost four games by 27 (actually 28) points,” Riba said during a break in practice Wednesday. “So that team fought hard. This is a completely different team. Every year is an new year, just like last year’s team wasn’t the team that we almost won the conference and went to the playoffs. There’s not a sense of urgency about that. We know what they’re going to give us, and I know that we can’t sneak up on anybody anymore.”

Riba, 12-11 in two seasons at North Johnston, has built the Panthers up to contain approximately 36 to 37 candidates on both varsity and junior varsity squads. Raised voices from the coaching staff were few and far between Wednesday as North Johnston diligently continued the conditioning phase of the official North Carolina High School Athletic Association preseason practice period.

The quintet of Chris Barnett (defensive coordinator/running backs), Jeremiah Holland (offensive coordinator/linebackers), Mike Barnes (wide receivers/defensive line), Cy Daughtry (offensive/defensive line) and Michael Sliger (quarterbacks/linebackers) serve on Riba’s third staff. Daughtry graduated from NJ in 2016.

“We’ve got a great bunch of men,” Riba said of his assistant coaches. “They’ve got hearts for kids, and anybody can coach somebody and I can teach somebody how to coach if they’ve got a heart for kids. That’s what we’re doing out here, trying to teach these kids so they can play fast and hard.”

Seventeen seniors dot the Panthers’ preseason roster, giving them a solid base of returning experience at the 2-A level, as well as in Riba’s system.

“These kids have been in the program and what we’re doing for three years,” Riba said. “So it makes teaching what we’re doing so much easier and so much faster. The offense was telling me, they’re further along than they would have been at other schools at this time.”

Upon the graduation of Trey Whitley, a 28th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, the quarterbacking duties stand to fall to junior Camden Aycock. Aycock already has credible experience with NJ, drawing his first start as a freshman in the Panthers’ first-round playoff loss to Southwest Onslow in 2016.

“He’s pretty poised and knows what he needs to do,” Riba said of Aycock. “He’s just working on his throwing mechanics and making his arm a little stronger right now. But he has a grasp of the offense because he’s been in it for three years. I’ve got complete confidence in him. We’re scrambling just to find a viable backup, just in case something happens.”

The Panthers will take part in a pair of scrimmages, beginning with a trip to Smithfield-Selma on Wednesday, Aug. 8 before venturing to the Harnett County Jamboree two days later. There, NJ will tangle with Erwin Triton and Western Harnett.

North Johnston kicks off the regular season on Aug. 17 when it visits Southeast Halifax.