Two rivals going head-to-head. Both teams all but assured of a state playoff berth. One with a 13-year winning streak in the series on the line, the other with a 13-year series skein it desperately wants to break. Players on both teams with family roots embedded in the other team. Head coaches on each side with only a few years experience as the sideline leader — one who has continued the tradition of winning football, the other who has successfully cast a losing legacy aside to point things in the right direction.
Friday night will offer Bladen County football fans the 15th edition of the East Bladen versus West Bladen clash in the annual Battle for the Bell, and the storylines are many.
While Eagles coach Robby Priest and Knights coach Russell Dove both know this is just the next game on the schedule to get prepared for, they also know it has a whole other life of its own.
“The kids definitely feel the rivalry aspect and it gets them fired up the entire week,” Dove said. “They (the players on both teams) know each other well or are related in some way. It’s our job to get the kids to harness that emotion.”
“We’re the only two high schools in the county, and the loser has to wait a whole year for payback,” Priest added. “Regardless of the records, if they can’t get up for this one, I don’t know what it would take.”
East Bladen comes into the fray boasting an 8-2 record overall and 4-2 in the Four County Conference, while West Bladen brings a 6-4, 3-3 mark into Lenon Fisher Stadium on Friday.
Fans of the Knights and Eagles know the style of football played by the two teams isn’t fancy or flashy. The two teams mirror each other on both sides of the ball, each running a Wing T offense and offering a 44 or 50 defense. If there are differences, it is the fact that East Bladen has plenty of size, speed and a deep corps of running backs, while most of West Bladen’s skill people are seniors with plenty of experience that gives the Knights a chance to utilize some motion and misdirection on offense.
“We’ve been preparing for everything from them,” Dove said. “They have so much speed in the backfield and they know how to run that offense. On defense, they are big up front and have speed in the secondary.”
“West Bladen has a lot of good athletes,” Priest said. “The running backs look like good runners and their quarterback is good on the run or throwing.”
On the Eagles’ side, the offensive backfield has been in a state of flux over the past few weeks because of injuries. But Priest says everyone should be ready to go Friday — which means twins Ethan and Eian Hines (1,438 yards and 16 touchdowns combined) will get most of the handoffs from quarterback Ty McMillian. All three have been in and out of the lineup recently. Also returning will be fullback Nikita Owens, putting Priest’s “A” backfield on the field together for the first time in weeks. The Eagles’ offense has scored 301 points this season.
Defensively, East Bladen is led by linemen Chris Cromartie and Jonathan Melvin (112 tackles, six sacks combined) along with Michael Walter (42 tackles, five sacks), Xavia McDowell (55 tackles) and Derrick Burney (58 tackles). The Eagles’ defense has allowed 172 points so far.
For the Knights, injuries have also riddled the West Bladen backfield this season. But Dove said everyone should be ready to play this week — which means seniors Malique McDowell (707 yards, four touchdowns), De’quan Lennon (432 yards, three touchdowns), junior James Moore (596 yards, three touchdowns) and sophomore B.J. Drake (544 yards, four touchdowns) will provide the ground game. At quarterback, Stefan McDonald offers plenty of options with his feet or arm. The Knights’ offense has scored 233 points this season.
On the defensive side, West Bladen is led by senior lineman David Gittens (69 tackles, three sacks), senior linebacker Idris Najeeullah (three sacks) and junior linebacker Hunter Pait (32 tackles). The Knights’ defense has allowed 284 points thus far.
Dove and Priest each said there are challenges facing them and some specific keys necessary to get a win.
“We’ve got to slow their offense down and get our defense off the field,” Dove said. “That means making third-down stops, something we’ve struggled with. We’ve also got to do all the basics better — block, tackle, avoid turnovers and win the special teams battle.”
“Eating the clock, playing good defense and think about field position,” Priest said. “Those things will be important, along with not turning the ball over.”
The game will be broadcast live on Cool 105.3 FM by the Bladen Sports Network crew of Ricky Leinwand, Robert Hester, Dan Allen, Joe Melvin and Ron Daniel. The pre-game show starts at 7 p.m. with kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.