03/02/2024
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By Sonny Jones

It’s supposed to be Friday Night Lights, but here we were, several hundred of us, maybe a thousand or so, gathered at Lenon Fisher Stadium on a Tuesday night in late September to watch high school football teams representing East Bladen and West Bladen in the annual Battle for the Bell game.

Tuesday Night Lights just doesn’t have the same ring.

It showed Tuesday as East Bladen beat the Knights 16-8 for its 20th straight win in the series. West Bladen won the inaugural meeting in 2001 and hasn’t bested the Eagles since. It’s a streak that began before any player on the field Tuesday was born.

It was a hard-fought, defensive battle and the effort was there from both teams, but it wasn’t crisply played. By my count, there were 170 yards in penalties, eight fumbles, of which three resulted in change of possession, three passes intercepted by East Bladen and a safety recorded for each side.

It’s the type of game you get when one team, East Bladen, had not played since Sept. 10 because of COVID-19 protocols and the other team, West Bladen, had played last Friday and had to make a goal line stand in the closing seconds to beat Fairmont 14-12.

It’s high school football in the COVID-19 era. Teams may go two weeks or more between games or play three games in eight days and and have little quality practice time. Purnell Swett High is scheduled to play its first game Friday.

“Right now, it’s tough,” East Bladen coach Robby Priest said. “Most everybody is going through it. The other day we were practicing with 23 guys. That’s JV and varsity combined. There’s no continuity. It’s worse this year than it was last year.

“You’re waiting for a phone call or the nurse to call you to the office. I used to get called to the office, but by the principal. Now, it’s the nurse. I know she’s got a tough job. You just dread that text or that call.”

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Photos by Kenneth Armstrong

The Eagles, now 2-3, had their scheduled Aug. 27 game against South Columbus called off, but managed to find a replacement in West Carteret. Tuesday’s game against West Bladen was scheduled for Sept. 17, rescheduled for Sept. 20, then finally played Tuesday. East Bladen is scheduled to play at Fairmont on Friday and, perhaps, return to a more normal schedule aside from a Saturday, Oct. 16 game at St. Pauls.

West Bladen, now 2-2, was unable to scrimmage at Midway and had its first two games called off because of COVID-19 protocols at the beginning of the season. The Knights are off this Friday after playing twice in five days, then will play three games in eight days if all goes as planned. West Bladen is scheduled to host St. Pauls on Friday, Oct. 8, play at Red Springs on Tuesday, Oct. 12 and play at Midway on Friday, Oct. 15.

“COVID makes it tough,” first-year West Bladen head coach Stanley Williams said. “Every day you never know who you’re going to have and who you’re not going to have.

“That Midway (scrimmage hurt). When I got that call we had turned into Midway in the parking lot. That hurt because our kids were hyped and that caused us to miss out on a valuable opportunity as far as seeing who we need to move around and things of that nature.”

Each coach has to deal with COVID-19 issues within their team. Athletic directors deal with it for all teams.

“The biggest issues is that day to day we don’t know who we’re playing,” said Travis Pait, who is in his third year as West Bladen AD and also is the school’s boys’ basketball coach. “Even last year, one day, in another sport, we were going to play one team and had to play another because that’s who was available. You have to coordinate with the (officials’) booking agent and with the schools. Now, it’s 11 or 12 o’clock before you know if you’ll be playing that day. The next thing is the communication outward. Letting everybody know what’s going on.”

The one silver lining, if there is, indeed, a silver lining, is contests in all sports are being played. Admittedly with a great deal of uncertainty.

“The big thing I take away from the last two years is I saw how much the kids missed not getting to play when we couldn’t play,” Pait said. “I think you have to have a different perspective. Yes, winning is important and we want to win, but these kids want to participate. They want to have some normalcy.

“I think we’re more suited this year even though we’re still going through COVID for it being more normal than we were last year.”

Agreed.

Tuesday Night Lights will never become a catchphrase and, hopefully, this will be the last football season where it is written. Until then, as Pait says, at least the kids are getting to play.

Sonny Jones can be reached at wibbyj@gmail.com.

https://bladencounty.org/football-east-bladen-16-west-bladen-8/

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