Editor’s note: Bladen County certainly had its fair share of big news from the world of sports in 2016, and choosing the best 10 stories — along with a few honorable mentions — was again a difficult task. But the staff of the Bladen Journal spent time taking a look at the myriad of choices and, short of tossing a dart, chose the annual Best of the Year list. Following is the Top 10 of 2016, along with the handful of honorable mentions. The choices, as always, are subjective, so please keep that in mind as you look through our list.
No. 1: Lacey Suggs
One of the most celebrated and awarded high-school careers came to a close in June when Lacey Suggs graduated from East Bladen High.
Far and away the best girls basketball player in the region for a number of years, Suggs is now on the roster at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with the Lady Seahawks. The list of accolades accumulated by the Lady Eagles star — in basketball, soccer, volleyball and softball — will be difficult to replicate.
For starters, Suggs led the Lady Eagles to the best overall record of any senior class — East Bladen was 106-11 during Suggs’ four seasons. During her senior year, Suggs averaged more than 22 points, nine rebounds, five steals and four assists per game in taking the Lady Eagles to the East Region finals — where their 31-game win streak and season was stopped by High Point.
Individual achievements for Suggs include:
— Scoring 2,139 points in her career, third all-time on the Lady Eagles list.
— Four County Conference Player of the Year three straight seasons.
— First-team selection on the All-Cape Fear Region list by The Fayetteville Observer and All-Region team by the Wilmington StarNews multiple times.
— A Mountaire Farms/Civitas Media Athlete of the Month and Female Athlete of the Year.
— Player of the Year and first-team selections from the Four County Conference in soccer, volleyball and softball.
— All-State selection in basketball from the North Carolina Basketball Coaches Association.
And there were many others.
Suggs also put in a lot of work in the classroom and finished with a 4.6 weighted GPA.
“Lacey is just an incredible athlete, student and person; it’s been a real pleasure coaching her and we all know she will do terrific things going forward,” East Bladen Athletics Director and coach Patty Evers said.
“I did put in a lot of hard work, especially in athletics and academics because those are two of the most important things in my life,” Suggs said.
The culmination of Suggs’ career easily made her accomplishments the best story of 2016.
No. 2: Conference realignment
It may be tough to fight City Hall, but East Bladen Athletics Director Patty Evers and West Bladen Athletics Director Kim Cain showed they could fight the North Carolina High School Athletic Association … and win.
Initially, the NCHSAA began its conference realignment duties by placing the Bladen County schools in a nine-school group that included lengthy trips to Goldsboro, Spring Creek and James Kenan. But after plenty of urging from Evers and Cain, the NCHSAA put the Eagles and Knights into a familiar conference with teams from Robeson and Columbus counties.
The split Class 1-A/2-A conference, temporarily known as “H Conference,” will include teams from St. Pauls, Fairmont, South Robeson, Red Springs, Whiteville, South Columbus, East Columbus and West Columbus.
No. 3: Lady Knights tennis
West Bladen set a number of school records en route to a Four County Conference title with a perfect 8-0 mark and an overall record of 17-1. Senior No. 1 singles player Alanna Ludlum was 17-1, 8-0 and selected the conference’s Player of the Year for the second straight season. She also went 17-3 in doubles overall and became the school’s overall career wins leader with 117.
The Lady Knights’ No. 1 doubles team of Ludlum and Amber Long became the first-ever West Bladen tennis players to qualify for the state championships and went 2-2 in the playoffs.
No. 4: Mark Gillespie
Mark Gillespie, who has been involved in Dixie Youth Baseball since 1986 in Elizabethtown and served as the town’s DYB president since 1992, was honored in April with a plaque that puts him in the Danny Jones Club, the highest honor given in DYB.
The award was presented to Gillespie by Carey Wrenn, state director for Dixie Youth Baseball out of Kernersville.
The Danny Jones Club is named in recognition of Dixie Youth Baseball’s first commissioner.
No. 5: Eagles football
After weathering a 2-2 start in the non-conference part of the schedule, East Bladen took third in the Four County Conference with a 5-2 mark and then went on a deep run in the state’s Class 2-A playoffs, losing in the third round to South Columbus by a heart-breaking 42-41 verdict.
Senior running back Ethan Hines named to the All-Cape Fear Region honorable mention team by The Fayetteville Observer and to the Wilmington Star-News All-Area First Team Offense after rushing for 1,913 yards and 24 touchdowns to lead the Eagles to a 9-5 overall record.
No. 6: West Bladen trio
The 2016 Powerade State Games included three individuals — two players and a coach — competing in the annual softball tournament. Rising seniors Alanna Ludlum and Laikyn Pait, along with coach Joey Autry, were selected to represent the Lady Knights on the Region 4 team.
No. 7: Elizabethtown to Rio
Hunt Cole and his Image Design company in Elizabethtown supplied signage for the men’s and women’s golf competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Design was the sub-contractor for the job.
No. 8: Lady Eagles basketball
Coach Patty Evers’ team opened the season with a 31-game winning streak that included wins over Class 4-A Jack Britt, Hoke County and Wilmington Ashley. Led by the senior core of Lacey Suggs, Abby Ward and Christiana Cromartie, the Lady Eagles swept to the Four County Conference championship with a 14-0 record and easily won the conference tournament by outscoring its three opponents 194-83. East Bladen lost in the East Region finals to High Point, 55-37.
No. 9: Cade Hancock
The teen golfer from Elizabethtown led Harrells Christian Academy’s golf team to the state championship as its No. 1 player as a freshman and became a two-time Hurricane Junior Golf Tour defending champion. He also ranks No. 15 nationally in the HJGT rankings. Most recently, he finished third in his age group out of 44 players at the 48th annual George Holliday Memorial Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
No. 10: East Bladen baseball
The Eagles won the Four County Conference championship with an 11-3 mark and went on to finish the season at 15-7 overall. Senior pitcher Alex Coates was named the conference’s Co-Player of the Year after going 10-2 on the mound for East Bladen.
Coates also hurled a perfect game against Wallace-Rose Hill on April 11 that included six strikeouts and just 71 pitches. He followed that up on April 21 with a one-hitter against Clinton.
— Abby Walters: The West Bladen graduate led UNCP softball in hits (72), doubles (16), triples (4), home runs (8), RBIs (42), total bases (120) and slugging percentage (.659), and tied for the team lead in at-bats (182), on-base percentage (.420) and stolen bases (26) during her junior season. She was named to the All-Peach Belt Conference first team and the Natiobnal Fastpitch Coaches Association Div. II All-Southeast Region as an outfielder.
— Larrell Murchison: The 2014 East Bladen graduate was named to the 2016 National Junior College Athletic Association All-America Team as a defensive honorable mention. The 6-foot, 4-inch, 290-pound lineman had 41 tackles, 29 solo, and 5.5 sacks for the Louisburg College Warriors.
— West Bladen basketball:
— Russell Dove: The former West Bladen High football coach, who left the Knights’ sideline to take the same job at South Columbus High in Tabor City, saw big success in his first year. The Stallions won the Three Rivers Conference, then went deep into the state’s Class 2-A playoffs — including a tough 42-41 win over East Bladen in the third round. Dove’s team lost in the East Region finals and finished 12-3.
— Play60 in Bladen County: Dublin Primary School was one of only 30 schools in North Carolina to host the Carolina Panthers’ Play60 event. Members of the West Bladen Dream Team assisted with eight stations set up for the youngsters to participate in. All of the students received Play60 T-shirts.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.