One day after playing the most unforgettable game of their lives, Rocky Mount Academy’s seniors found out it was their last.
The Eagles rallied to win the Eastern Plains Independent Conference Tournament championship game on Saturday after their best player, Adam Bayless, was taken from the game on a stretcher, but the win wasn’t enough in the eyes of the NCISSA selection committee, which left Rocky Mount Academy out of the 12-team tournament field.
The tournament had previously been a 16-team event, but was shortened to 12 teams with the top four team earning first-round byes this year.
“I kind of expected it with 2-A going from 16 teams to 12 teams,” Rocky Mount Academy coach William Harrison said. “We were told we’d have to win the tournament to have even the slimmest chances of making it.”
The Eagles (19-4) did indeed win the tournament, but tiebreakers and a weak strength of schedule kept them out of the final 12.
Rocky Mount Academy, Henderson Kerr-Vance Academy and Raleigh Grace Christian all finished at 11-3 in the EPIC, but Grace Christian won on the three-team tiebreaker.
Grace Christian went 3-1 in games against the other two schools, while Rocky Mount Academy went 2-2 and Kerr-Vance went 1-3, giving Grace Christian the regular season title.
Unlike the NCAA – which uses conference tournaments to decide automatic bids – the NCISSA tournament bid is given to the EPIC regular season champion.
“I was hoping people would see that we all tied in the regular season and use the conference tournament to get us in, but that wasn’t the case,” Harrison said.
With four teams cut from the field, Harrison knew the Eagles’ at-large prospects were slim, especially following a 21-point loss to Fayetteville Academy, which earned a No. 10 seed.
Grace Christian, the EPIC representative, earned the final seed at No. 12.
The Eagles won the regular season title in 2012 and drew a No. 14 seed in the NCISSA tournament, where they lost in the first round.
The past eight EPIC representatives have failed to win a playoffs game.
“I don’t think the conference gets enough respect, but that’s just me,” Harrison said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to the conference, but it’s looked at like a weak schedule. If there had been 16 (teams), we probably would have gone as a 14 or 15 again.”
The Eagles did learn good news overnight Saturday.
Bayless returned home from the hospital, though he did sustain a concussion.
And NCISSA Tournament or not, Harrison remained proud of his players, who were overachievers to be in the playoffs discussion in the first place.
“I’m so proud of the guys,” Harrison said. “People come up to me and say I’m a great coach, but I didn’t play a single minute. It’s those kids at the school who are doing this. It’s all them.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.