TITLE-CHASER? Gardner-Webb has high hopes entering 2022 Big South Conference season

By Richard Walker

Gardner-Webb was a third-place pick in the six-team Big South Conference in a preseason league poll.

Gardner-Webb’s Narii Gaither, shown here during a preseason practice session, is the 2022 Big South Conference preseason offensive player of the year.

And while the preseason projection is higher than the last-place finish the Bulldogs had in 2021 when it was a nine-team league, it doesn’t match the optimism many in the GWU family feel entering the season.

“I have no doubt that we’ve gotten better every day,” third-year Bulldogs coach Tre Lamb said at Big South Media Day last month in Charlotte. “I’m a big believer that when you build the culture right, the wins will come.”

Lamb’s excitement is based on returning 21 starters out of 22 returning off a 4-7 team, having his first full spring practice session and the expected improvement he and his staff expect with the experienced his team gained through four one-possession losses a year ago.

“I’ve always believed you build success for your team in January and February and we got to do that this year for the first time,” said Lamb, whose 2021 spring practice drills turned into an abbreviated regular season after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 fall schedule. “The experience this group has gained in close games will help us.”

The most talented returnee is 2022 preseason offensive player of the year Narii Gaither, a first team All-Big South running back in 2021 who rushed for a league-high 991 yards. Fellow preseason all-league selections Clayton Frady (offensive line), Gabriel Thompson (offensive line), Justin Franklin (wide receiver) and Bailey Fisher (quarterback) should give the offense some significant firepower.

Top defensive returnees include preseason all-league picks Ty French (defensive lineman), Jamari Brown (defensive back) and William McRainey (linebacker). And T.J. Luther, who is Gardner-Webb’s fastest player, was a preseason all-conference kick return specialist.

Lamb’s roster also includes 14 standouts from Cleveland and Gaston counties.

“There’s obviously a lot of talent right in our area,” Lamb said. “We want them playing for us and helping us be the successful program we want to be.”

Senior defensive end Stormy Mosteller (Burns 2018 graduate), junior running backs Kendall Massey (Ashbrook 2020) and Jalin Graham (Crest 2020), junior offensive lineman Larry Dowdy (South Point 2019), junior defensive lineman Christopher Richardson (Crest 2020), junior wide receiver Eli Brooks (Crest 2020), sophomore defensive back Tyler Arrington (Shelby 2021), sophomore long snapper Jamie Wilson (Kings Mountain 2021) and freshmen Torrian Arrington (Shelby 2021), Caleb Borders (Crest 2021), Jaycob Neely (Forestview 2022), Jacob Patterson (South Point 2022), Sam Baldree (Shelby 2022) and Eja Brice (Cramer 2021) make up the local contingent.

Gardner-Webb has won four conference titles in its senior college history – the last in 2003 – and has finished in the bottom half of its league the last five seasons.

“The expectations are higher,” Lamb said of this season. “That’s a good thing because it means we’re doing things the right way.”

Here is Gardner-Webb’s 2022 schedule:

Sept. 1 Limestone, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10 at Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.
Sept. 17 at Elon, 6 p.m.
Sept. 24 Mercer, 6 p.m.
Oct. 1 at Marshall, TBA
Oct. 8 at Robert Morris, 3 p.m.
Oct. 15 at Liberty, TBA
Oct. 22 at Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.
Oct. 29 Bryant, 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 12 at Campbell, 1 p.m.
Nov. 19 North Carolina A&T, 1:30 p.m.