Bladen County high-school football fans have plenty to be excited about for the upcoming 2014 season — at both ends of the county. And the opening kickoffs are just two weeks away.
West Bladen’s Russell Dove, now in his second season as head coach of the Knights, is hoping to build off of last season’s success; East Bladen’s Robby Priest, now in his third season as head coach of the Eagles, hopes to continue the tradition of playoff football.
In 2013, West Bladen — coming off a disappointing 0-11 season in 2012 that saw the Knights open up the offense under first-year head coach Joe Salas — switched its offense back to a more balanced attack that featured the run more often under Dove.
The result was tat the Knights were able to surprise a few opponents, winning three of its first five games and five of its first eight. Despite dropping their final three Four County Conference matchups, the Knights earned a Class 2-A playoff berth for the first time in several years.
West Bladen opened the season with two straight wins, 34-12 over former Three Rivers Conference foe South Robeson and 37-27 over West Columbus. After a 35-13 loss to Whiteville and heartbreaking 24-22 loss to St. Pauls, the Knights rebounded with a 41-24 shootout win over Union to open conference play.
After a sound 53-12 loss to powerhouse Class 1-A Wallace-Rose Hill, West Bladen came back with two straight conference wins — a 57-26 shellacking of Heidi Trask on homecoming night, followed by a blowout 61-0 win over Pender County that gave the Knights a 3-1 conference mark.
But the bottom fell out with a 42-29 loss to Clinton, a tough 24-19 loss to Midway and a 28-7 loss to East Bladen to finish the regular season at 5-6.
West Bladen’s most successful season in a handful of years was rewarded with a No. 16 seed and a matchup at No. 1 seed Northeastern High. And despite giving the home team all it could handle early, the Knights fell 39-12.
East Bladen’s 2013 season took on a completely different and unlikely path right from the start.
Priest watched as his Eagles opened the season with three straight losses and five in the first six games. The lone win, a 50-18 smacking of East Columbus, was sandwiched around a 58-56 loss to Fairmont, 17-8 loss to Whiteville, 37-14 loss to Sun Valley, 16-13 heartbreaker to Midway to open conference play and an even tougher 21-20 loss to Clinton.
But Priest never lost faith in his Eagles, and they responded by winning their next five regular-season games — starting with a 46-6 smoking of Pender County on homecoming night and followed by a 42-6 win over Heidi Trask, a hard-fought 36-26 upset of Wallace-Rose Hill, a 36-6 win over Union and the 28-7 victory over West Bladen to finish the regular season at 6-5.
That earned them another crack at Clinton in the opening round of the Class 2-A playoffs, again on the Dark Horses’ home field. This time, East Bladen’s defense went stiff and the Eagles pulled out a 14-7 win to advance.
In the second round at Southwest Onslow, a back-and-forth affair came down to the final play at the Onslow 1-yard-line, and East Bladen’s run play came up 1 foot short to drop a 24-21 verdict and end its season.
The opponents for both the Knights and Eagles in 2014 remain the same as it did in 2013, except, of course, the home and away games are flipped.