ELIZABETHTOWN — In a football atmosphere laced with a legacy of success like East Bladen has enjoyed, there is always hope for one more Friday night in November. For the 2017 Eagles, that hope came to an end last week with a 30-13 home loss to Southwest Onslow one step short of the East Region finals.
“We’ve probably become spoiled with the success we’ve had, and fans just take it for granted that we’ll be right there come playoff time,” Coach Robby Priest said. “But it’s hard to do what we’ve done.”
East Bladen finished its latest campaign 12-2 overall — and there was no shortage of highs along the way, as well as a few records to break or get close to.
Priest knew he had something special when official practices opened on Aug. 1, but he also knew there would have to be a lot of molding.
“My first job is to teach and the second job is to coach,” he said. “I knew we had enough experience to help the younger players along, but we had to find ways to put it all together and keep everyone motivated.”
Once the season started, that process was helped by a couple of rivalry games — like Clinton and Whiteville — but there were still rough spots.
“We had some struggles keeping them focused,” Priest said, “but all in all, we kept seeing improvements.”
Despite a 14-13 loss to nemesis South Columbus, thanks to a blown interception call, the Eagles went on to post an 8-1 Three Rivers Conference mark and tied with South Columbus and Whiteville for the conference crown. The ensuing drawing of numbers between the three teams resulted in East Bladen getting the No. 1 seed out of the conference and a No. 2 seed in the NCHSAA Class 2-A East playoff bracket.
That set the Eagles up nicely for a good playoff run.
Opening up against an always pesky James Kenan team, East Bladen’s defense found itself under an aerial attack that had the Eagles fighting for their playoff life right to the final buzzer. East Bladen prevailed by just a 39-33 score to move on.
In the second round, East Bladen played solid Eagles football on both sides of the ball from start to finish, inking some big numbers into the school record books with a 68-28 win over Greene Central. Those numbers included:
— No. 2 all-time in team rushing yards in a game with 557, behind the 600 tallied in August 2012 vs. North Johnston.
— No. 1 all-time in team touchdowns in a game with eight, tied with the October 2003 game against West Columbus.
— No. 1 all-time in total offense with 640 yards.
— No. 1 all-time in individual rushing yards with 309 by Xavier Wooten.
— No. 1 all-time in individual touchdowns with six by Wooten.
Last week’s third-round game saw the premature end to Wooten’s career when he was knocked out of the game in the first quarter after only three carries for 8 yards — giving him 1,841 yards and 29 touchdowns during his senior season.
“I hated it ended for him like that,” Priest said of his running back, who suffered two stress fractures in his leg, but no ligament damage. “He came to me after the game and said he wanted a re-do (of the last game). I told him I did, too, but that’s life and we just have to adjust the best we can.”
Wooten, who is already committed to N.C. Central for baseball, is one of 17 seniors from the Eagles’ opening-day roster who will graduate — including Sincere Smith, Caleb Strait, Xavia McDowell, Quinton Bedsole, Adonis Avery, B.J. Robinson, Lahkeyd Lesane and Devonta McIver — and Priest knows there will be a degree of rebuilding and reloading to come.
“The season isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and our seniors really helped lead us through it,” Priest said. “But we have a lot of skill coming up from the jayvee, as well as some good returning players.
“We might just be speediest team (next season) we’ve had here, and pretty athletic,” he added. “But it’s such a long process — almost year-round — so time will tell.”
With the 2017 season in the books, Priest said he will look back at his 12-2 Eagles with some pride.
“They kept improving and working hard and finding ways to get the job done,” he said. “I’m proud of what they accomplished. I always looked forward to watching them play on Fridays.”
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.