Eastern Plains Conference holds football media day

Published 4:32 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS EARLY LOOK: Washington head coach Sport Sawyer and defensive coordinator Jon Blank discuss the upcoming season with the Southwest Edgecombe coaching staff on Wednesday morning at Parker’s Barbeque in Greenville.

EARLY LOOK: Washington head coach Sport Sawyer and defensive coordinator Jon Blank discuss the upcoming season with the Southwest Edgecombe coaching staff on Wednesday morning at Parker’s Barbeque in Greenville.

GREENVILLE — David Boal, head coach of North Pitt, sees the 2015 Eastern Plains Conference as the 2-A North Carolina high school football equivalent to college football’s SEC. Beddingfield head coach Tyrone Johnson foresees a top-three conference finish as the key to unlocking a deep playoff run. Coming off a state championship appearance, Washington head coach Sport Sawyer has one primary goal for his program, a state 2-A state title.

Last season’s Eastern Plains Conference featured some of the state’s top hard-hitting football teams with dedicated fan bases and unrivaled talent. After three of the table’s four playoff-eligible teams made runs to the third round or further in the 2014 state tournament, more of the same is expected this season in a conference that’s become the benchmark for eastern North Carolina football.

“If you look in the preseason polls (Carolina Preps), there are three teams in the conference ranked in the Top 25,” said Farmville Central coach Scott Gardner. “It’s going to be what it is. If you win our conference, you’re going to have a chance to play for the state championship.”

Johnson, who navigated the injury plagued but up-and-coming Bruins to a 4-7 finish, echoed those comments.

“It’s always tough,” he said. “You’re always going to be playoff ready if you can withstand (conference play), stay healthy and come out of it. You’re going to be playoff ready in that conference. Every Friday is a playoff game.”

At the annual media day gathering at Parker’s Barbeque on Wednesday, depth, development and conference prestige headlined the conversation, as six coaches and a collection of assistants discussed the upcoming season and grueling Eastern Plains slate. Expectations are realistically high across the board for a conference located in the once underappreciated East. Now, following the Markel Spencer-driven East’s 27-13 victory over the West at Jamieson Field in Greensboro earlier this month, coupled with Washington’s near victory in the 2-A title game last December, the West is taking notice.

One thing is certain, No.14-ranked Washington’s undefeated Eastern Plains Conference streak of 10-straight wins has never been more exposed. Losing more seniors than Farmville Central and Southwest Edgecombe combined (26), the Pam Pack will lean on a youthful backfield, along with a couple of veteran defensive centerpieces, to lead the team and compensate for the lost production. The catalyst will be an experienced coaching staff.

“Right now, in our guys’ minds, we’re out there to win a state championship,” Sawyer said. “Now, we might not win a game, but that’s our expectation. Everything we do goes with the expectation of being the best we can be.

“I’ve been blessed to try to learn myself through the years, you have to work hard and we have a great group of coaches — coach (Jon) Blank, coach (Dewayne) Kellum, a guy I coached a long time ago in Terrance Copper,” a former Pam Pack, East Carolina and NFL receiver who takes over as the receivers coach. “We have a lot of good coaches out there that bring a level of intensity, which also makes the players bring a level of intensity.”

While the Pam Pack are certainly battle tested, the team to watch this year may be Southwest Edgecombe, which picked up the conference’s highest preseason ranking at No. 10. The Cougars return seven players on each side of the ball and have replaced standout running back Devontrell Hyman, who rushed for a conference-high 2161 yards, with a stable of athletic backs, including Marcus Williams Jr. and Keanan Williams.

“I think this conference as a whole will be stronger this year than it was last year and it was strong last year,” said Cougars head coach J.C. Cobb. “As far as the backfield goes, we have extreme depth with the running back, quarterback and fullback positions. Lost a great player in Devontrell Hyman, a one-man wrecking ball. We’re so deep there that it’s not a concern for us. We have some very talented players who will be hard to beat out from the rest of that stable.”

Roster depth, a common preseason question for nearly all 2-A football teams, ebbs and flows with injury. Nearly all of the coaches enter the season comfortable with their starting 22, but it’s the back end of the roster that’s leaving them envious of Washington, the conference’s largest team. For the Pam Pack, depth is not an issue and could be the X-factor in piecing together another run through the 11-game regular season slate. Sawyer expects players from last season’s jayvee team, which finished 9-1 and edged North Johnston for a conference championship, to fill voids on both sides of the ball and strengthen the roster.

Washington opens the season on Aug. 21 at home against Havelock, the defending 3-A runner-up that beat the Pam Pack, 37-6, in last year’s season opener.


1. Washington

2. Southwest Edgecombe

3. Farmville Central

4. Beddingfield

5. North Pitt

6. North Johnston