For the third time in 13 months, Tarboro and Kinston will play a knockout game.
Though tonight’s contest in Tarboro is the first of those three meetings to come in the playoffs, the two schools knew well that every night in the Eastern Plains Conference brought a desperation atmosphere.
But this meeting, with either Kinston or Tarboro heading home for the year, marks the true end of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference as it stood from 2009 until this season.
The NCHSAA will reclassify following this school year and shuffle conferences, which completely retools the Eastern Plains’ dynamic.
Tarboro, the three-time defending 2-A state champions – and ranked No. 1 this year with a possible fourth title on the way – will move down to 1-A, while current EPC members Kinston and Greene Central will move to a new conference with Goldsboro, North and South Lenoir and Ayden-Grifton.
The four remaining schools will be joined by Washington and South Johnston. With the changes, it marks the final goodbye to a conference that its members loved.
“It was a real pleasure to have been part of one of the strongest 2-A conferences in the entire state of North Carolina,” SouthWest Edgecombe coach Raymond Cobb said. “No matter who you played on Friday night, you knew you were in for a tough game because there are so many strong teams.”
In the conference’s four years, it had at least three teams make it to the second round of the playoffs in three of the four years, as well as four state finalists, three championships and four teams still alive this year.
As Tarboro (11-0) has forged a dynasty in 2-A football, its three straight titles came only after the current EPC was formed. To Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock, that’s not a coincidence.
“Playing in this conference has absolutely made us a better team and me a better coach,” he said. “Week in, week out, it’s a playoff atmosphere.
“We have so many awesome coaches in our conference, which I’ll really miss. If you have a weakness, they’re going to find it and try to exploit it, and that makes you have to improve your weak areas. It makes you a better team.”
The strength of the conference has added to its depth. SouthWest Edgecombe, which finished third in the league and 5-5 overall in the regular season, drew a No. 13 seed in the East Region because of its record. But what its record did not explain was that being a .500 team with the Cougars’ ruthless out-of-conference schedule and deep conference was an accomplishment.
That tough schedule is one of the reasons the Cougars still are playing.
“The schedule’s very valuable this time of year,” Cobb said. “When we get to the playoffs, we’re used to the skill of the other team. There’s nothing skill-wise that we’ve not seen.”
The makeup of the tactics has proved useful, as well.
Last season Tarboro beat SouthWest Edgecombe, a power-running team with a dynamic running back, and Greene Central, which runs the triple option.
In the playoffs, the Vikings saw similar offenses in the regional semifinals against Edenton Holmes and the state championship against Lincolnton. Tarboro narrowly won both games.
“There are so many diverse offenses that it brings out the best in teams,” Craddock said. “You constantly have to adjust and say, ‘This is what they did that worked, how do we stop it next time?’ It really helps in the long run.”
Last season, after Tarboro won the 2-A championship at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, Kinston waited to warm up for the 2-AA title game, which was played shortly after at the same site. The two teams, which had battled bitterly for the EPC title in the regular season, came together in between games, Kinston congratulating Tarboro and Tarboro telling Kinston to win a title of its own.
When it comes down to the end, the teams are in it together.
“It irritates me that the pod system makes us pick each other off so that scenario can’t happen again,” Craddock said. “But there ain’t no question about it, we all root for each other. That’s what made this conference so fun.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com