PEMBROKE — There’s no doubting the success that The University of North Carolina at Pembroke football team has had to start the season.
The No. 16 Braves are off to the second 3-0 start in program history, matching the beginning of the 2009 season that ended with a trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs, and could be the first to open with four straight.
But it’s a hot start that the UNCP football team isn’t content letting fizzle. The Braves are trying to stay hungry and avoid the mistakes of seasons like last year, when the team started 5-1 but lost three of its last four games.
“We don’t talk about it much. We really don’t reference it a whole lot,” said UNCP coach Pete Shinnick. “We’re not looking past what we’re doing today or tomorrow.”
It’s a mindset the team emphasized during preparation for Saturday’s game against Wingate. The Braves play the Bulldogs (1-1) at 2 p.m. at Grace P. Johnson Stadium in Pembroke.
It is the second of four home games for the team and is the only matchup that’s been played each year since the program’s reinstatement, Shinnick said.
The Bulldogs hold a 4-2 lead in the series and the last time the Braves were ranked similarly high — No. 14 two weeks into the 2010 season — Wingate spoiled it with a 28-25 home win.
“Our guys completely understand, and we continue to educate them on it, these guys know how to play,” Shinnick said. “We’ve played them every year, they’ve got the best of this series.”
With the history, there are certain constants.
The coaches for the teams have stayed the same, with Shinnick running UNCP and Joe Reich in his 13th season leading the Bulldogs.
There’s also the knowledge that Wingate will attack with a balanced receiving corps.
In two games, second-year quarterback Robbie Nallenweg has racked up 527 passing yards, but no receiver has more than 83 individually and the top four are separated by six yards.
“They have always been a very balanced passing attack. They always spread it around,” Shinnick said.
Though the Bulldogs have found more success in the air than on the ground, with 59 rushing yards this season, Shinnick expects to see the ground game.
“I promise you they’re going to do everything they can to run it on us,” Shinnick said.
The Braves, however, have found players that are stepping up for the new season.
Defensive back and Richmond alum L. J. Stroman has led the way defensively, nabbing two of the team’s four interceptions, breaking up numerous other pass plays, and put together 20 tackles, which puts him third on the team. Beyond Sports Network named him one of their national defensive players of the year last week.
John Rich, another Richmond product, leads receivers with six touchdowns in three games. Last year he didn’t catch a ball in the end zone.
It’s improvement Shinnick credits to both hard work and defenses that have kept an eye on Te’vell Williams, who leads the team with 255 receiving yards but only one touchdown.
“People are obviously conscious of where Williams is, so he’s getting coverage. John takes advantage of that,” he said. “A lot of stuff transpires like that but John’s hard work has paved the way to put him in that position.”
The Braves are coming out of three big wins — first on national television against a top-5 team, then against Fayetteville State, and last week against undefeated Shaw in neutral territory — but Shinnick emphasized that no victory is guaranteed, especially against the likes of Wingate.
“Every week’s going to create a different challenge,” he said. “We want to continue that success but we’ve got to continue getting better.”
Scott Schlaufman works for Civitas Media as the sports editor of The Robesonian.