Hunt head coach Keith Byrum stands on the sidelines during the Warriors' game at Corinth Holders on Oct. 3, 2016. Hunt won 30-7 but it was the last win of a 3-8 season for the Warriors, who have a daunting nonconference schedule lined up for this season.
Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times
Beddingfield assistant coach James Ward, talking to Bruins quarterback Joseph Pender in a game against SouthWest Edgecombe on Nov. 4, 2016, will make his head coaching debut for the Bruins in their 2017 season opener Aug. 18 at Oxford Webb, one of several new nonconference opponents for Beddingfield this year.
Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times
Fike head coach Tom Nelson, on the sidelines in a game against Kinston last season, will lead the Golden Demons in their first-ever meeting with Northern Durham in the 2017 season opener on Aug. 18 in Durham.
As far as first seasons go for a high school varsity football coach, 2016 was not easy by any stretch of the imagination for Hunt’s Keith Byrum.
He didn’t get the job until late June when his predecessor, Stevie Hinnant, announced his retirement. Then Byrum never was able to put together a complete staff. The Warriors started 3-3 but then lost all five 3-A Big East Conference games to finish 3-8, their worst record ever and missed the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs for the first time since 1998.
While Byrum and the Warriors have higher expectations for 2017, the first six games of the season won’t offer much relief. With a new two-year scheduling cycle kicking off, Hunt has lined up a formidable non conference schedule that includes traditional powers Greenville Rose, Havelock and New Bern.
“We kind of found ourselves short as far as games go and so you go out there and look for teams who are also looking for games,” Byrum said. “Hopefully you play these games early in the year and you hope that when you get to conference, those games will have given you some good experience.
“The only way to get better is to play good teams and the only way to do that is to play them early on.”
One thing playing in Hunt’s favor is the change in playoff seeding authorized by the NCHSAA in its annual May meeting. Now teams will be seeded by their ranking on MaxPreps.com, for which the formula uses strength of schedule, instead of just by their won-lost percentage. That means a loss to higher-ranked team won’t hurt as much in the rankings.
But the aforementioned power trio presents an entirely new challenge to Hunt, which also plays Eastern Wayne, Hertford County and Beddingfield before Big East play begins Oct. 6. Since 2011, New Bern and Havelock have won state titles and all three have played in an NCHSAA championship game in the last three seasons.
The Warriors have never played New Bern but defeated Havelock in the only meeting between the schools. Rose, however, has played Hunt 14 times, winning eight. The schools were in the same 4-A conference from the early 1980s until Hunt dropped down to 3-A in the early ‘90s. Rose, which lost to Charlotte Catholic in the 2015 NCHSAA 4-A title game, will be a 3-A school for the first time in decades when the NCHSAA realignment kicks in at the beginning of the school year.
TOUGHER SLATES THE NORM
Hunt isn’t the only team that faces stiffer non conference competition this season. Fike added Northern Durham, Clayton and Triton to its schedule while Beddingfield will play 2016 state 2-AA runner-up Jacksonville Northside.
Southern Nash counts reigning state 4-AA champion Wake Forest as well as 4-A Cary Green Hope and West Johnston, an erstwhile 4-A program that will be 3-A starting this year.
Because most schedules were set before the NCHSAA changed its seeding format, many teams looked for non conference opponents from lower classifications or without strong reputations. That left a lot of teams looking for opponents.
“It’s just a matter of finding somebody to play,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said. “It’s hard to find people to play and when you do find them, you better take them.”
Foster said he was disappointed that series with Beddingfield and SouthWest Edgecombe have been discontinued, particularly because of the attendance those games generated, but he understands why teams don’t want to play his Firebirds, who have gone 39-13 over the past four seasons.
Foster quickly pointed out that just because Southern Nash has added 4-A teams doesn’t mean the Firebirds will have it much tougher this season.
“I know it looks different with 4-A teams but Tarboro’s not a bad 1-A team,” he said, somewhat understatedly of the Vikings who have been a 1-A power for most of the past decade.
Southern Nash and Tarboro discontinued their series, which had produced some thrilling games in its four-year run.
“That was a mutual deal. I think it served its purpose for the four years we did it,” Foster said.
CHANGES FOR BRUINS, DEMONS
First-year Beddingfield head coach James Ward, who had been the Bruins defensive coordinator for more than a decade, said their non conference schedule had just been brutal for the past few years, especially considering that Beddingfield will also have Hunt and Fike on its slate of early games.
“For years we probably had one of the toughest 2-A schedules in the state,” Ward said. “We played basically the whole Big East Conference with the exception of Rocky Mount and then had to play our Eastern Plains games.”
One of those Big East teams, Nash Central, is now a member of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference with Beddingfield. The Bulldogs will replace Washington, which won three titles in its four years in the EPC.
“For four years, we were the only one that knocked Washington off,” Ward pointed out. “I hate to see them leave but I’m glad they’re gone. Washington was tough!”
Ward is happy with the Bruins’ 2017 non conference schedule, which also includes Oxford Webb, Smithfield-Selma and Northern Vance. He didn’t plan on adding Northside until Rosewood had to drop the Bruins earlier this spring. However, Ward expressed dismay that Greene Central is not on Beddingfield’s schedule for the first time in a decade.
“I really hate to lose that game because that was a rivalry game,” he said.
Golden Demons head coach Tom Nelson said he was able to secure a full schedule early on but then Eastern Wayne dropped Fike and picked up Hunt, leaving the Demons without an opponent in the opener. So Fike picked up Northern Durham, another former 4-A program moving down to 3-A.
“When we schedule, we are looking for good quality opponents that are fairly close by,” Nelson said.
Even with just two 2-A opponents on the schedule, Nelson pointed out that it probably wouldn’t be tougher than 2015 when the Demons played three teams — Bunn, Kinston and Rocky Mount — that ended up playing in their respective state championship games.
But count Nelson as a fan of the new NCHSAA playoff seeding, mainly because it won’t create an impetus for teams to schedule down.
“Yeah, I think so because now it encourages you to play better teams,” he said.
Both Hunt and Fike will face a new opponent in the Big East — Franklinton, which took Nash Central’s place. Byrum said he doesn’t know much about the Red Rams yet but he’s giving them the same consideration as he would Havelock, New Bern, Rocky Mount or any other team on Hunt’s 2017 schedule.
“I haven’t been able to see anything on them yet but we’re not in the position to overlook anybody,” he said. “We’re coming off a year in which we didn’t do what we wanted and we’re in need of a resurgence, man!”