ELIZABETHTOWN — Winning 10 games for the ninth time in the past 12 seasons and compiling a 27-12 record over his first three seasons at the helm at East Bladen, coach Robby Priest probably did his best coaching job this year as the Eagles faced a rash of injuries that decimated his starting backfield.
East Bladen finished 10-3 overall and 5-2 in the Four County Conference.
“Coach (Lenon) Fisher told me you’ll have those seasons where nothing goes your way,” Priest said, referring to East Bladen’s former head coach. “But he said it makes you a better coach. And I feel like I learned a lot this year.”
That might not be good news for the rest of the conference, which will have one more season as it is before realignment.
As East Bladen was getting out to a 5-0 start, the injury bug began to hit — wiping out the entire starting backfield of senior quarterback Ty McMillian, senior fullback Nikita Owens and junior running backs Ethan Hines and twin brother Eian Hines. Suddenly, chemistry and production were and question mark for the Eagles.
Fortunately, Priest had a Plan B that worked well.
Stepping in was senior quarterback Alex Coates, sophomore fullback Xavia McDowell, junior running back Kyle Tatum and sophomore running back Bernard Robinson.
The Eagles went 5-3 the rest of the way to finish third in the conference and earn a Class 2-A playoff berth — where they beat Graham at home in an overtime thriller, 35-34, then lost to Southwest Edgecombe on the road, 41-21.
“It was 10-3, and it’s a good feeling to win 10 — but we left some meat on the bone,” Priest said. “The goal is to win the conference, and if you don’t win a state championship you’re not happy because the season ended with a loss.
“But the kids all played their tails off this season,” he added. “And we have to be happy about that.”
The Eagles will be losing 16 seniors to graduation from this year’s team — including McMillian, Owens, Coates, kicker Jesus Ramos, linebacker/receiver Zach Johnson, lineman Chris Cromartie, lineman Jonathan Melvin, lineman Pachaun Cloud and defensive back Trevor Lloyd.
The East Bladen offense scored 371 points over the 13 games with a ground game that was led by Tatum (760 yards and 11 touchdowns on 124 carries) and Ethan Hines (760 yards and nine touchdowns on 135 carries). Eian Hines rushed for 734 yards and seven touchdowns on 100 carries, while Owens gained 552 yards and scored six touchdowns on 121 carries. McDowell added 548 yards and five touchdowns on just 87 carries.
As a team, the Eagles rushed for 3, 612 yards and 40 touchdowns on 636 carries.
Defensively, East Bladen allowed 250 points during the season. The team’s leading tacklers included Cromartie with 33 solo and 81 total tackles, junior lineman Derrick Burney with 15 solo and 64 total tackles, McDowell with 14 solo and 63 total tackles, and Melvin with 16 solo and 61 total. The team’s sack leader was Cromartie with 5.5, while junior linebacker Michael Walter had five.
Tatum led the Eagles with two interceptions, and three other players had one each.
Priest won’t let East Bladen take much time off before getting prepared for next season.
“We’ll get the kids back in the weight room and start to build that camaraderie,” he said. “That togetherness is just as important because we want them to play for each other as a team.
“We’re losing a lot, but we’ve got good people coming back and there will be help coming from the jayvee,” he added.
And another 10-win season — or more — may already be penciled in.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.