The Lumberton Panthers football program has no doubt been successful under coach Zach Jones. Lumberton has three straight region titles under its belt, two south state appearances and it played for a state championship in Jones’ second season.
It’s now Year 5 for Jones and he’s adding something new this offseason – leadership training.
“We teach them football and we talk to them about being leaders, but we have to coach that up like we do the football side of it,” Jones said. “I think it’s something that’ll help us down the road.”
Two players Jones will count on to lead his team are incoming seniors Jayson Buckley and Augustus Sandifer. Buckley is a growing defensive back with 10 interceptions already to his name, while Sandifer is a quiet defensive lineman who wants nothing more than to get off the field as soon as possible.
That’s not because he doesn’t enjoy football, but it’s the defense’s job to stop the opposing offense as quickly as possible.
“I’m thinking about getting off the field,” Sandifer said. “We’re not letting them get a first down.”
The 5-foot-11 lineman recorded 84 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss as a junior, which was good enough fourth and second most for the Panthers in 2018. He had at least one tackle of a loss in every game but two as well, and Sandifer also caused a fumble and recorded a fumble recovery.
Sandifer has never been the vocal leader for the Panthers, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t led by example throughout his varsity career. While he does the right things at practice and in the games, it’s taken him some time to pick it up on the vocal side.
“I’ve come out of my shell more,” Sandifer said. “I used to be quiet, but I talk more now. I had to work on it a lot. They tell me every day that I need to be more vocal. It’s natural now.”
Behind Sandifer on defense is Buckley locking down a receiver from his cornerback position. Buckley was a part of a pass defense that only allowed opponents to pass for less than 100 yards a game. In fact, Lumberton held at least seven opponents to less than 100 yards in 2018.
Buckley will be a three-year starter when he laces up his cleats as a senior, but he’s been a contributor for the Panthers since he was a freshman. He has 97 total tackles from his defensive back position, and he snagged six interceptions as a sophomore in 2017 and four more as a junior a season ago.
“I can see everything,” Buckley said of his field vision. “It’s just right there. It’s easy. I can find the ball quick.”
He credits the weight room for his growth this offseason, but his maturity has allowed Jones to look at Buckley as a team leader.
“Jayson isn’t the most vocal guy, but for the last two years all he’s done is make plays,” Jones said. “He goes out and practices hard every day and goes out and backs it up on Friday night.”
Having a designated group of leaders is something Jones wanted, and Buckley agrees.
“It’s something we needed to do,” Buckley said. “We’ve been falling short the last couple of years, so we need to do something. If we’re better leaders, then the young guys will follow us and we’re going to win.”
After all, this senior class is searching for something no Lumberton class has ever captured – four straight region titles. Whether or not these seniors can lead the Panthers to another region title, and hopefully a state championship, they’ve still raised the bar back to where Lumberton wants its football program to be.
“This group is what raised the expectations back to where it was supposed to be,” Jones said. “That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. They are part of the guys who raised the standard to where Lumberton is relevant and talked about.”