07/12/17 — PREP FOOTBALL: Gators, Cougars prepare for realignment

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PREP FOOTBALL: Gators, Cougars prepare for realignment

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on July 12, 2017 7:07 AM


SEVEN SPRINGS -- A new era begins at Spring Creek this fall.

The Gators will face new opponents and new challenges.

Not to mention they'll need to find a competitive edge in a seven-team league that has been billed as perhaps the "toughest 2-A conference in eastern North Carolina."

And they're not alone.

Goldsboro drew the same fate once the latest realignment -- a blueprint designed by the N.C. High School Athletic Association went into effect July 1.

The county duo will join perennial powerhouses Wallace-Rose Hill, James Kenan, East Duplin, Clinton and Midway in the East Central 2-A. The quintet has combined to win 21 eastern regional titles and 15 state championships.

Wallace-Rose Hill is the three-time reigning state 1-AA title holder.

"Of course, it's going to be a huge challenge for all our sports moving up to the 2-A level and being one of the smallest 2-A schools in the state," SC athletics director Heath Whitfield said. "I'm afraid it's going to take us a little while to adapt and hopefully be competitive at that level.

"It's probably not going to happen overnight."

The most-recent average daily membership (ADM) numbers released in 2016 listed the rural school with 666 students -- the third-lowest among the 58 institutions listed in 2-A.

An appeal to remain in the Carolina 1-A Conference was not an option, according to Whitfield.

"I was told that was not going to happen," he said. "I was told you could go up a classification, but not go down a classification. We petitioned to get into a different conference, but that didn't work out."

SC wanted to join the league that includes Greene Central, North Lenoir, South Lenoir, Kinston, Washington, Ayden-Grifton and West Craven.

Goldsboro made the same plea.

Whitfield doesn't expect the student-athletes to miss extended class time. The eight-team league encompasses three counties -- Wayne, Duplin and Sampson.

The marquee sports in recent seasons in "The Swamp" have been boys' and girls' soccer, boys' basketball and baseball. The four sports have combined for 13 of the athletic program's 21 regular-season league championships.

"The conference is strong," Whitfield said.

James Kenan's existence in the Carolina 1-A Conference helped elevate the level of play -- especially in football. The Tigers either won or shared league titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The Tigers' and Gators' departure -- and the return of former Carolina member Union -- altered the schedules. Rosewood won't play Midway for the next two years, but kept Spring Creek on its 11-game slate for this season.

Eagles athletics director Robert Britt said the basketball teams will have two byes, and thought that the boys' soccer teams will play each other three times. However, two results count in the conference standings.

Neither wrestling nor swimming were affected.

"I think with James Kenan, really for the past four years being the dominant force in football, was a credit to our league," said Britt, who also coaches football and indoor/outdoor track.

"I think now everyone is going to have a chance to win it (in football). Everybody is kind of on the same playing field...lot of same demographics. Just the like Carolina Conference has always been, we're going to be competitive on the state level."