LILLINGTON — By the time he reached the line of scrimmage, Shaun McLean was already running downhill.
Taking the pitch from quarterback Franklin Trapp and running the sweep around the right side, or taking the clean handoff and hitting the gap made clear for him by his offensive line, McLean was seeming already at top speed even as the play was still just in its developing stages on Friday night.
The Western Harnett Eagles may be about to catch up to him.
Before the 2009 season began, new Eagles coach George Coltharp made it clear who would need to carry the load for Western Harnett.
“We expect big things out of Shaun,” Coltharp said in early August. “We’re looking for more consistency out of him, but he’s one of the most talented running backs I’ve had as a head football coach.
“We’ll go as far as he can take us.”
And now, after a grueling stretch of road games, McLean, if he can shake off an injury that took him out of the rest of the game against Southern Lee on Friday night, may be set to take the Eagles back to the state playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
McLean was spectacular in the Eagles’ 48-0 win over the Cavaliers, rushing 19 times for 237 yards and two touchdowns, calling to mind his 189-yard, two-score performance when Western Harnett shut out Lee County’s other team, the Yellow Jackets, in the season opener.
And he can be the horse the Eagles (2-4, 1-1) need to carry them to two more wins to become eligible to reach the playoffs. The schedule, for the first time all season, finally seems to favor the Eagles, whose win over the Cavaliers ended a string of four straight games away from Lillington. Western Harnett hosts Union Pines next week before hitting the road again to face Douglas Byrd, but then finishes the regular season by hosting Gray’s Creek, then at Overhills and at home against Westover.
It’s not necessarily an easy stretch — take away Overhills’ 1-6 record, and the combined record of the rest of the remaining opponents is 17-9 — but at least the Eagles will only have to leave Harnett County once more.
And even a quick look at the Eagles’ losses reveals good things about the team, and potentially even better things to come. While Western Harnett snapped a four-game skid with its win Friday night, those losses were mostly low-scoring affairs and came against the sixth-ranked 2-A team and unbeaten Northwood (14-7), unbeaten Harnett Central (23-13), Triton (26-21) and unbeaten Pinecrest (27-6). The combined records of those teams? 20-2.
With a defense that is allowing just 15 points a game — all 90 points given up were against the aforementioned heavyweights — there is hope that the Eagles, like McLean before he got the ball Friday, are just now beginning to hit their stride.