Eastern Alamance’s football team went through a year of growing pains and maturity in 2018, but still put together another solid season in what has been a remarkable run of excellence over the past decade.
Despite a pair of disappointing early losses in September at Southern Alamance and Northeast Guilford, and then a heartbreaking 37-34 loss at home in late October to rival Western Alamance that cost them a share of the Mid-State Conference regular title, the Eagles put together a four-game winning streak in November that culminated in a run to the third round of the NCHSAA 3A state playoffs.
It was the tenth time in the last eleven seasons going back to 2008 that the Eagles have won at least ten games on the gridiron and advanced to at least the second round of the NCHSAA state playoffs.
“Years ago, the thing is you’d set your goal to win a conference championship. You’d set your goal to go as far as you could in the playoffs. And then as you went deep in the playoffs, it seems like that’s kind of where you were. I don’t know if you’ve met your goal or not,” EAHS head coach John Kirby said in a recent interview. “These days now, everybody sets their goal on winning a state championship, because that’s the ultimate prize. At the end of the day, if you don’t win it all, you’re sad. There’s only one team that is going to be happy in that classification when it’s all over with.”
“Going into last year, we felt like it was going to be a rebuilding year in that we had 36 seniors from the year before. And then we get into it. As the year went on, we got better and better, and I think we started peaking at the right time,” Kirby continued. “We had two good quality wins in the playoffs, and finished the regular season out strong. With the win over Southern Nash - to come back the way we did over an outstanding football team - it has given our kids confidence going into the offseason, and the preseason as well.”
Heading into 2019, the Eagles again have solid numbers, as they began practice this past week with well over 100 players. The Eagles should be able to field good-sized varsity and junior varsity teams once again, and Coach Kirby is excited about the combination of experience, leadership, and enthusiasm this particular group has shown throughout the offseason.
“Our numbers have been pretty good the last few years,” Kirby said. “They’ve stayed steady. We had 105 kids in camp (in July). And we were probably missing, if they decide to play, another 15 or so. So we may have as many as 120 (once the season begins). I think it started off in the spring. We actually got to have spring practice this year. Last year we only had a couple of days because of all the (school) lockdowns. I thought our spring went really, really well in that our kids had a lot of enthusiasm. They got after it.”
The Eagles are returning most of their starters on both sides of the ball, and are bringing up multiple players from another outstanding JV squad. The result is a deep varsity squad that will have a chance to bring the Mid-State Conference title back to Mebane for the first time since 2015.
“The culture here has been both our teams have been successful in past years. Last year our JV team finished 9-1, and we were disappointed that we lost that one,” Kirby said. “It’s something that our kids believe in. They expect to win. And I think sometimes other teams come in and it’s almost like, ‘Oh, we’re playing Eastern Alamance…..I’m not sure.’ Or they could come in and say, ‘Doggone it, we’re going to play a Super Bowl tonight and knock them off.’ It’s one of two things. I do think that our kids feel like they’re going to win every game they play. And I feel like that’s part of the battle.”
Eastern, as has been the case in recent years, opens the season in late August and early September with a quartet of inter-county rivals. The Eagles open the regular season with local 2A rivals Graham on August 23 and Cummings on August 30, leading up to matchups with Williams on September 6 and Southern Alamance on September 13. The Eagles are seeking revenge against the Patriots this season on their home field after getting dominated 54-34 by Southern last season in Swepsonville.
The Eagles open conference play in Mebane September 27 against Northeast Guilford. The Rams stunned EAHS a year ago, controlling the clock and the line of scrimmage in a 29-15 triumph in McLeansville.
“Northeast Guilford, they knocked us off last year. Earl Bates, you can’t ever count him out. I think he’s an outstanding coach that does a great job,” Kirby said.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association is implementing this year a 40-second clock between the end of one play and the snap of the next play, similar to what college football did a few years back.
Against run-oriented teams like Northeast Guilford, the new clock rules could directly affect Eastern Alamance, which runs a high-tempo offense and doesn’t figure to be trying too often to slow down the clock and the game pace.
“The 25-second clock (before the snap) is out. And they’re now doing a 40-second, kind of like how they do in college,” Kirby said. “I don’t know how that is going to affect the game. Will that speed it up? Or will it help somebody really take the air out of it, slow it down and take a lot of time off the clock? I’m thinking it’s not going to hurt us. I think it may help us in the fact that we can try to run as fast as we can. But sometimes when you play a team -Northeast Guilford - they’re going to be methodical. They’re going to take their time. You have to take advantage of possessions that you’ve got. I think that sometimes that may level the game, too. If you take the air out of it, it kind of makes it close - where you’ve got a shot at the end.”
Following the conference opener against Northeast Guilford, the Eagles will have a challenging path of three road conference games in October against Person (October 4), Northern Guilford (October 11), and Morehead (October 18), sandwiched around a home game against Rockingham (October 18).
“I think the guys at Person are excited. They’ve got a new coach (Joey Carroll) - kind of a new breath of air. I’m not sure how that’s going to relate to wins and losses on the field. But I know that we’ve seen them and we’ve hosted them a couple of times over here, and their kids are working hard,” Kirby stated in regards to the Rockets.
The Eagles know they’ll face a particularly stiff test against the Nighthawks, who will be seeking their own brand of revenge against Eastern after dropping a 40-36 decision to EAHS in the final minutes last October.
“Northern Guilford, they’re athletic. They were good last year. We won last-second, thanks to some heroics by (running back) Colby (May) and (quarterback) Austin (Bryant),” Kirby said. “They’ve got a good, quality program going. They won those state championships. The dynamics have changed there a little bit since Coach (Johnny) Roscoe left, but they’ll be in the thick of it.”
“I think that Morehead is going to be decent,” Kirby added in regards to EAHS’s ninth regular season opponent. “Morehead has gotten better each year that Coach (Lin) Stadler has been there. Last year they made the playoffs. I’m sure their numbers will be better this year. And they had some athletic kids last year. They’ll look to improve.”
Despite all the hurdles in September and October, however, the Eagles know there’s one game on the calendar that stands out above all. One game on the calendar that the alumni and the local media will be most interested in. One game that, at least in recent years, has directly determined who ultimately prevails in the Mid-State Conference standings.
That game, of course, is the cross-county showdown with Western Alamance, which is scheduled this season for November 1 in Elon.
“Western, it’s big. It’s a big rivalry. It’s a big game for us. A lot of people, they look at that schedule and they circle that game. That’s the one that they say, ‘I’m going to be there.’ I know the kids that go off to school, and the alumni, they all look at that game and they say, ‘I’m going to be at the Western game.’”
2019 will mark the third time in four seasons going back to 2016 that the Eagles have faced Western on the road. But Coach Kirby and his staff know, as do the EAHS players, that playing well and winning in a hostile road atmosphere such as that at Western Alamance can only serve them if they plan on making another deep playoff run.
“It seems like we always play there, even though we played here last year,” Kirby said. “Do I think we’re going to win the conference championship? We’re going to try our best. But we do know we’re going to have to go through Western Alamance in order to do that.”
The Eagles will close out the regular season on Senior Night at Fred Brady Stadium the evening of November 8, as they face McMichael. The state playoffs will begin the following Friday night.