LUMBERTON — Lumberton High School had a new head football coach when it took the field last night at Hoke County.
Coach Joe Salas was told Thursday morning he was no longer leader of the program effective immediately, Lumberton interim athletic director Mackie Register confirmed to The Robesonian.
“I’m sad this happened and from experience, I know we were headed in the right direction,” Salas said. “I’m upset with the timing and the way it was handled, but you can’t cry over spilled milk.”
Seven consecutive losses and growing discontent from staff, players and parents, were primary reasons for his dismissal. Players and assistant coaches were informed of principal Larry Obeda and the athletic department’s decision shortly after first period in the cafeteria.
Salas was not granted permission to meet with his team according to Register, a longtime coach at the school who stepped in for Tripp Satterwhite in an administrative position last month.
“Everyone was shocked at first when they told us, but then after the fact, it’s like we knew it was coming,” said senior wide receiver Bryan Carpenter. “It was kind of weird for everybody.”
The hammer came down Thursday when the Pirates made a final decision to move in a different direction after seven weeks of football under the current regime. Salas, who went 0-11 in 2012 at West Bladen, was hired in January to replace Mike Brill after six playoff-bound seasons.
In 2009, Salas led South Johnston to the state 3AA championship game.
“As losses pile up, the volume gets louder,” Salas said. “I’ve been through this seven times and know it’s part of the process. I lost sight of the fact it had been six years since they had been through this and they may have forgotten how tough that first year can be when your team is inexperienced and your schedule is demanding.”
At the time of his hiring, Salas requested patience from the Lumberton brass and said it would take time to install his pass-heavy Air Raid offense at a program used to running the football. He enacted a four-year plan for success and broke his program into three tiers — God-approved, mission centered and hedgehog focus — hoping to use each to help the Pirates take the next step toward a state championship.
“My job is to now fade into the background and support my girls,” Salas said. “They both like it at Lumberton High School and right now want to finish the year before we move on. I did a poor job of communicating to stakeholders as the season progressed and there’s always a normal level of drama that goes on that first year.
Without the benefit of a single returning starter on offense, Lumberton suffered through a treacherous start in Salas’ first season, a two-month stretch that included a 34-point homecoming loss to Hoggard and last week’s Southeastern Conference setback to Pinecrest.
Lumberton’s administration had seen enough.
Defensive coordinator Ron Cook has been promoted to interim head coach and met with his players before practice Thursday. The Pirates went through their normal routine despite the unexpected circumstances.
“Ideally, you don’t want your first opportunity as a head coach to come in this way, but it is what it is,” Cook said.
Lumberton’s defense has been its most effective unit this season behind the individual performance of senior linebacker Demetri Sheridan who’s the state’s second-leading tackler. Cook, who was at Red Springs last season along with Lumberton offensive coordinator Lawrence Ches, has utilized a 4-3 base defense this year to take advantage of the Pirates’ speed off the edge.
He says minor changes will be made in game plan and philosophy over Lumberton’s final four games.
“A few things will be different, but we don’t want to get the kids out of the routine they’ve been used to these last few months,” Cook said. “We’ll maybe change the way we practice and switch up a few things.”
Salas says Cook will do a fine job in the the interim.
“The kids are awesome and have really worked their butts off,” Salas said. “They deserve a fantastic finish.”
Public Schools of Robeson County athletic director Jason Suggs declined comment on this story.
Lumberton lost to Hoke 38-21 Friday.
Brad Crawford works for Civitas Media as a staff writer with The Robesonian.