The North Carolina High School Athletic Association on Thursday put its final stamp of approval on the statewide conference realignment plan that will begin with the 2017-18 school year, a plan that will keep the two Bladen County high schools much closer to home than originally thought.
East Bladen and West Bladen, after one more season in the Four County Conference, will remain in a split Class 1-A/2-A conference but move to what is temporarily being called Conference H, a 10-team league that will include teams from Columbus and Robeson counties.
Initially, the NCHSAA had placed the Eagles and Knights in a conference that included Clinton, Wallace-Rose Hill, East Duplin, James Kenan, Midway, Spring Creek and Goldsboro. Shortly after, Goldsboro was dropped but the rest of the proposed conference was left intact — until recently.
Now, East Bladen and West Bladen will look forward to a conference that includes St. Pauls, Fairmont, South Robeson, Red Springs, Whiteville, South Columbus, East Columbus and West Columbus.
The new alignment is one that both athletics directors — Patty Evers at East and Kim Cain at West — fought to get and are pleased with.
“It wasn’t easy because, initially, I didn’t think that the state would have a 10-team conference,” said Evers. “(But) I believe that with the other schools fighting to join other conferences, that made the difference. Neither side wanted to travel that far and it didn’t make much sense to take kids out of class like that and getting back late.
“The initial letter that was written had input from both coaching staffs from each school, therefore it is always a joint effort with East and West working together,” she added. “Coach Cain and Dr. Heavenridge represented Bladen County at the alignment meeting and did a great job discussing why we wanted to be in the conference with the Robeson and Columbus schools.”
Travis Pait, the varsity boys basketball coach at West Bladen, was one of a few local coaches considering a change in jobs if the original realignment had stood. Now, however, he’s looking forward to the new conference.
“I’m ecstatic it turned out the way it did,” he said. “I really didn’t want to do all that traveling, and I was fully prepared to look for another job so I could have more time with my family.
“But aside from me, West Bladen will be so much better off — not only from a travel standpoint, but because these conference games will be good gates with some natural rivalries,” Pair added. “There’s some good history with most of these schools for West Bladen — and even before there was a West Bladen. These kids know each other fairly well.”
The 10-team conference will mean less non-conference games for all the sports schedules, but Pait sees even that as a positive.
“More of the games will mean something in the standings and it keeps us from having to find games to fill out a schedule,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to this starting next year, and I think the conference will be a competitive one.”
For both East Bladen and West Bladen, the new conference will mean about half of the travel distance and time than the initially proposed alignment would have.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.