ELIZABETHTOWN — Although East Bladen football fans have become accustomed to seeing the Eagles in the state playoffs year after year, third-year head coach Robby Priest knows it only take a key injury or two, a key bad break here or there, and one tough loss to keep a team home after the regular season.
“Oh yeah, we can’t get off to the kind of start we did last year,” he said. “We were right up against it the whole season.”
Priest is referring to the Eagles’ 1-5 start that had folks wondering if that would be the season East Bladen was left out of the state playoffs for the first time in a long time.
But the Eagles responded with a six-game win streak and came up just a foot short of earning a berth in the third round of the Class 2-A playoffs. And Priest said he’s feeling pretty good about this Eagles team.
“We’re quite a bit further along than we were at this point last year,” he said. “I’m probably most pleased with the defense, which is looking a lot better already. Of course, it’s a work in progress, as it always is.”
One area where Priest has a real leg up on the 2013 team is depth, where he said the Eagles should be a lot better off.
“We’re a lot deeper this year than we were last year,” he said. “We had to do a lot of maneuvering last year and get players rest every chance we could. But this year, we’re pretty deep — at running back alone, we’re nine deep.”
Of course, Eagles football is predicated on the run game, and leading the way will be senior running back Farrell Murchison, who rushed for 2,029 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. His brother, senior Larrell Murchison, will be at fullback once again and provide both a blocking force as well as a short-yardage threat. He rushed for 97 yards last season on just 17 carries over half a season, and should see more opportunities this season.
At quarterback will be second-year starter Ty McMillian, a junior who passed for 1,170 yards and 12 touchdowns last season with just two interceptions. behind him is junior Alex Coates, who Priest says “throws a really nice ball” and just needs to get some experience with the varsity.
Priest said pretty much every position on the team is up for grabs every week because of the depth.
“We’re hoping to work on getting the right combinations on the depth chart,” he said. “But at least we have a depth chart — last year we just had a chart.”
East Bladen has 10 seniors on its roster this season, along with 18 juniors and six sophomores — and there have been a few surprises during the preseason.
“We’ve had a few along the way,” Priest said. “I think we’ll have a lot more team speed this year, something we didn’t really have a lot of last season.”
A lot of that speed belongs to sophomore brothers Eian and Ethan Hines, who will patrol the secondary for the Eagles as well as be a part of the offense as wide receiver and running game threats.
If there is an area that Eagles football expects to focus, in addition to the running game, its on defense.
“We’re hoping to hang our hat on the defense,” Priest said. “But we also have a running game that’s OK.”
He said he expects the split Class 1-A/2-A Four County Conference to be just as stiff a challenge as it was last season, and sees Class 1-A Wallace-Rose Hill and Class 2-A Clinton as the main threats.
“But everyone will be a challenge along the way,” he added. “And right now, we’re just focused on Fairmont (the season-opener on Friday).”