Editor’s note: Sports in Bladen County, regardless of the year, is always exciting, rich and deep in tradition. Looking back over 2017, it was easy to see the past 12 months were more of the same. There were exhilarations, heartbreaks and some surprising events that kept us all interested. Choosing the biggest, best and most impactful is as subjective as selecting the best team nickname — but we’ve taken another shot at it. So as good as Eagles and Knights, following are our choices for 2017.
The biggest one: Emily Scott wins
Although she was helped in putting Elizabethtown on the U.S Army and Pro Football Hall of Fame map by those who came before — specifically Melissa Macon and Abbey Norris — East Bladen senior Emily Scott put the golden star push-pin in that map by being chosen the winner of the 2017 U.S. Army and Pro Football Hall of Fame Award for Excellence.
Scott was one of 25 national finalists for the award.
It was during her trip to Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Weekend, Aug, 4-6, that Scott was announced as the winner during the weekend luncheon. Moments later, she was whisked away to a photo shoot with members of the NFL Hall of Fame and then to the 2017 Hall of Fame inductions.
“She is the most deserving young lady because of her leadership and continued drive to excel in everything she does,” said East Bladen Athletics Director Patty Evers, who coached Scott in basketball and softball. “I am humbled to have coached such a special individual.
“Emily exemplifies ever core value these organizations stand by,” she added. “Her academic/athletic accomplishments, community service, her integrity, character, trust and honesty have set her apart.”
The Award for Excellence program highlights the achievements of student-athletes across the country who excel in the classroom, on the field of competition and within their community.
“There were 24 other finalists who were all awesome, and I can’t imagine how they chose just one,” Scott said. “… the support of my family and coaches, my community have supported me and pushed me to be the best I can led up to this moment.”
Scott, who is the daughter if Bryon and Judith Scott of Elizabethtown, graduated from East Bladen High in June and now attends East Carolina University, where she is studying bio-chemistry and communications. She plans to pursue a career in medical genetics/genetic research.
No. 2: Cade Hancock birdies for smiles
Two things Cade Hancock has known since birth … golf and the cleft palette of his sister Cassie. In 2017, Hancock brought the two together in the American Junior Golf Association’s annual “Leadership Links” program.
Between March and October, the effort allowed junior golfers the chance to raise money for the AJGA and the charity of their choice by carding birdies and eagles during USGA-sanctioned and state high-school events. Hancock chose Operation Smile in honor of his sister and took the fundraising to a never-before-seen level.
When all was said and done, the Harrells Christian Academy junior had raised a best-ever $25,280 through per-birdie donations and one-time contributions. His success not only allowed him to hand over $12,640 to both Operation Smile and the AJGA, but it also won him a day of golf with PGA Tour pro Rickie Fowler in Florida and a complete set of TaylorMade golf clubs personalized just for him.
“This whole thing has been mind-blowing,” Hancock said. “I didn’t do it for the awards, I did it for my sister and the kids.”
Pete Hansen, a representative with the worldwide organization Operation Smile, said Hancock’s efforts will help a lot of children.
“(Cade) will change the lives of 52 kids with this gift,” Hansen said. “What a powerful thing for a young man to do.”
No. 3: East Bladen soccer soars
Coach Jay Raynor has built a reputation for putting together a solid soccer program, but it’s a safe bet that even his expectations were surpassed by what the Eagles managed to do in the fall of 2017.
Led by senior Brooks McGill, the East Bladen varsity ran through the Three Rivers Conference unblemished at 14-0 and went on to post a 21-2 overall record — with both losses coming at the hands of regional soccer power Clinton.
McGill, who would go on to receive numerous local, regional and statewide awards for soccer, finished his senior season with 32 goals and 39 assists — helping to lead East Bladen to a total of 144 goals in 2017, which was the fifth best in North Carolina and the seventh best in the country.
For their accomplishments, McGill was the conference’sPlayer of the Year and Raynor the conference’s Coach of the Year.
No. 4: Lady Knights get softball kudos
Almost as regularly as the flowers bloom in spring, the West Bladen varsity softball program blossoms into conference and state playoff contenders. Last season was no exception.
Coach Joey Autry’s squad completed its 2017 campaign with a 20-4 record overall and took the Four County Conference title with a 13-1 mark — all leading to six of Autry’s players being rewarded with statewide recognition.
Laikyn Pait, Logan Autry, Conner Brisson, Carley Dawson and Sophia Singletary were all tabbed for the N.C. Softball Coaches Association Class 2-A All-State team as well as the District 4 Class 2-A All-District team along with Kassidy Anderson.
Dawson, the team’s third-baseman, had the added honor of being chosen the District 4 Class 2-A Player of the Year.
“It’s an awesome recognition for these deserving ladies,” coach Autry said. “It shows the strength of the team, and I’m very proud of these young ladies.”
No. 5: Larrell Murchison goes to …
After four years with the East Bladen football Eagles and two years with the Louisburg College Hurricanes, was recruited by several top programs across the state and nearly decided on just about every one of them.
But at the 11th hour, the bruising 6-4, 290-pound fullback-lineman became a member if the N.C. State Wolfpack.
Murchison, who helped block for his record-setting running back twin brother Farrell while in high school, was recruited to one degree or another by the likes of Houston, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. At one point, reports had Murchison committing to Mississippi and then Georgia before he headed to Raleigh.
Though his own indecision seemed to play a role in the revolving-door recruiting process, Murchison landed in a good spot.
“I said earlier that there wasn’t a bad choice (among the schools recruiting Murchison), and I think he’ll do well at N.C. State,” said Robby Priest, Murchison’s coach at East Bladen. “He’ll be closer to home .. and folks can go see him play.”
Murchison was red-shirted for the 2017 season, leaving him with two seasons of eligibility.
No. 6: Scott Bowen plays for Dirtbags
Three years ago, Scott Bowen was perched behind home plate as a West Bladen catcher. Nowadays, the Knights senior still does his damage at home plate, but it’s from the batters’ box.
After a high-school season that saw Bowen become of the Knights’ most clutch hitters out if the No. 5 hole — helping West Bladen to an 11-3 record and second-place finish in the Four County Conference — the rising senior spent his early summer playing with the Dirtbags Falcon baseball team in the prestigious, nationally recognized World Wood Bat Association National Championships. That tournament was held in Cartersville, Ga., at the Lake Point Sports Complex.
The Dirtbags finished 2-2 in the tournament, with Bowen hitting .333 and playing a clean centerfield.
“The competition was unreal,” Bowen said. “Most pitchers we faced sat around the mid- to upper-80s. Three Power 5 Div. I commits we faced reached the low 90s.”
Bowen is expected to be one of coach Kim Cain’s leaders on the diamond for the Knights in 2018.
No. 7: Eagles football goes third round
Coach Robby Priest was named a Co-Coach of the Year in the Three Rivers Conference, but he’d be the first to tell anyone it was the players who brought the East Bladen football team a tremendous amount if success during the 2017 campaign.
The Eagles finished 12-2 overall and was co-champion of the conference with an 8-1 mark — the lone loss a 14-13 setback against South Columbus that all but hinged on a missed interception call. But East Bladen won the ensuing draw of numbers over South Columbus and Whiteville to get the No. 1 seed out of the conference for the state playoffs.
Led by senior running back Xavier Wooten, the Eagles escaped a 39-33 shootout with James Kenan in the first round of the Class 2-A East playoffs, then hammered Greene Central 68-28 before succumbing to an old nemesis, Southwest Onslow, 30-13, after Wooten was knocked out of the game early with an injury.
No. 8: Strait starts in Shrine Bowl
Senior East Bladen lineman Caleb Strait earned a spot on the 2017 Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas roster with the North Carolina squad, and was a starter for the Tarheels.
Strait, who was an offensive lineman in the game, helped lead North Carolina to its third straight win on the series, 55-24.
“He started and played a lot,” said Priest, who was chosen as an assistant coach for the North Carolina team, but was unable to attend because of an illness. “They rotated guys in and out, but I would say he played three-quarters of the game.”
The game pits the best high-school seniors in North Carolina against the same from South Carolina. This was the 81st game in the series, which South Carolina still leads by a 44-33-4 margin. The game was played at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.
No. 9: West Bladen tennis aces
Despite an early season coaching change from long-time coach Jeff Atkinson to first-year coach Mary White, the Lady Knights tennis team didn’t miss a beat.
After finishing the regular season with a 16-2 mark in the Three Rivers Conference, the West Bladen No. 1 doubles team of Conner Brisson and Savannah Lee went on to compete in the Class 2-A Mid-East Regionals in Cary, where they fell to a tough Greene Central duo.
No. 10: Coach Cross returns to sidelines
After a short stint away from the game, Ken Cross returned to the sidelines as a basketball coach in 2017.
Cross took over the fledgling varsity program at Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy and, so far, has guided the Bulldogs to a 3-0 record.
Though he spent a handful of frustrating and disappointing seasons at East Bladen, Cross has a 2008 Class 2-A state championship ring with West Bladen and has amassed more than 650 victories in his career.
— East Bladen grad Lacey Suggs was awarded her full basketball scholarship at UNC-Wilmington just before Christmas. The former Lady Eagles star is a captain for the Lady Seahawks and is averaging more than 14 points per game.
— West Bladen grad Brandon Council graded out No. 7 nation wide for pass protection among offensive guards in Div. I schools. Council plays for the Akron (Ohio) Zips.
— East Bladen senior running back Xavier Wooten is chosen a first-team player on the Wilmington StarNews All-Area football team after rushing for 1,841 yards and 29 touchdowns.
— West Bladen senior Sayaun Dent signs to play his collegiate basketball with Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., joining former teammate Rahu Purdie.
— East Bladen senior lineman Caleb Strait is chosen to the second team of the Wilmington StarNews All-Area football team.
— West Bladen senior John Bowen signs to play his collegiate basketball with Belmont Abbey in Belmont.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.