ELIZABETHTOWN — The ebb and flow of talent that controls much of the success for most high school football teams hasn’t seem to be as dramatic for East Bladen High over the past decade, and the 2017 season may just be more of the same.
Coming off a 9-5 season in 2016 that saw the Eagles finish third in the Four Rivers Conference at 5-2, as well as a journey into the third round of the Class 2-A state playoffs where they lost a heart-breaker to South Columbus 42-41, coach Robby Priest’s newest group has a few positives to rely on.
“We lost some really good talent in the likes of Kyle Tatum, Eian Hines, Ethan Hines and some others,” Priest said. “The Hines twins were 100 percent of our speed and 75 percent of our scoring.
“Those seniors also were good in the locker room, in the hallways and in the classroom,” he added. “They took a lot of pressure of me.”
But Priest also points to the fact that he has 16 seniors on this year’s roster, and says that’s probably the team’s biggest strength. Some will be expected to fill those shoes left behind by graduation in June.
“Having Skippy (Sincere Smith) back from injury is a real plus — he brings a lot of speed and options for us,” Priest said. “And others like Caleb Strait, Shy Pone, Josh McKoy, Xavia McDowell and Xavier Wooten will be important for us.”
Smith has been working out primarily at a wide receiver, but could see some action in the backfield. Wooten, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, will be the Eagles’ workhorse — behind the blocking of fullback McDowell.
Priest is also hoping for a few former jayvee players to step up — including centers Jordan Stanley and Davis Alsup, as well as running back/linebacker Jordan Payton.
On offense, fans should expect to see plenty of the usual “Eagles Football” with a strong running game and the occasional pass from returning quarterback Quinton Bedsole. But Priest also said there may be some wrinkles thrown in with the shotgun.
On defense is where Priest said he sees another strength — as well as his team’s weakness.
“The secondary is pretty inexperienced, so I’m a little leery about it,” he said. “It’s going to be young in spots, so we’ll just have to work through it.”
But Priest is happy to have former head coach Lenon Fisher leading the defense, and said “we might see some changes and more risks taken” on that side of the ball.
The new conference
After four seasons in the split Four County Conference, East Bladen will return to familiar territory in the Three Rivers Conference and play teams from Robeson and Columbus counties.
“There have always been some good rivalries with some of those teams — some we kept going over the past four years with non-conference games,” Priest said. “I think it’ll be a competitive conference, and there will be new coaches for me to try and out think, which I always enjoy.”
Without predicting where his own Eagles fit into the conference equation, Priest said there are four teams — Whiteville, Fairmont, South Columbus and St. Pauls — that appear to be the teams to beat. South Columbus came one step away from playing for the Class 2-A state championship last year, and Whiteville has been a power in both Class 1-A and 2-A over the past several seasons.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” he said.
East Bladen, after an open slot to start the season on Aug. 18, will travel to Clinton for a non-conference game against the Dark Horses on Aug. 25 at 7 p.m.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.