WHITEVILLE—James Kenan’s rocking comeback month into the realm of competitive football teams came to a hollow halt Friday night in a 56-0 second-round wipeout by No. 4 East 2A seed Whiteville (11-0).

Whatever the prediction for the game, it wasn’t that.

“The way it was going four minutes in, I was looking for a rock to hide under,” said first-year Tiger head coach Tim Grady.

His team already trailed 13-0. At the quarter it was 20-0. At halftime 42-0.

It was the most points yielded and widest margin of defeat in JK playoff history. (See notes at the end of this story.)

Maybe worse, an old tormentor was the perpetrator.

Whiteville head coach J.P. Price was his father Joey Price’s offensive coordinator at Wallace-Rose Hill from 2009-16, when the Bulldogs held a 7-4 record against James Kenan.

That included a 2-1 mark in 1AA East Region championship games (fourth round).

J.P. Price said, “We heard all week about who we’ve played—and Duplin County football,” Price said, referencing critiques about Whiteville’s schedule compared to James Kenan’s. “I couldn’t be prouder of our guys.”

Know what? Neither could Grady, at least about the turnaround started by his band of players and coaches who posted Kenan’s first winning record since 2015.

They finished 6-4 overall (.600) and 4-2 in the East Central 2A Conference, third behind Duplin County schools East Duplin (10-1, 6-0 ECC) and Wallace-Rose Hill (9-2, 5-1).

Thanksgiving

Grady, out from under his rock by Sunday and brimming with Tiger Pride, was ready to warm up to the Thanksgiving season.

“I was thrilled coming back in late June when 75 kids showed up [for spring practice]. Now we’ve got to be able to keep those numbers and keep developing the discipline.”

Then he got rolling like the assistant pastor he is.

“I’ve told our kids all year that James Kenan needed a small group to do something big. And we’ve done it.

“We weren’t supposed to come back from having the beginning of the season taken away from us, and we did it.

“We weren’t supposed to beat Kinston and Southwest Onslow at their homecomings, and we did it.

“We weren’t supposed to hang with Wallace and we did it.

“We hadn’t won a playoff game in six years—but we did that, too.

“At one point, early there, it looked so bad that we were actually thinking about closing down our varsity season and just playing our junior varsity games.”

Two months later, he sees the beginning of a foundation to build on.

“My hat’s off to our seniors, all of them,” Grady said. “I told our team they had changed James Kenan football for years to come.”

A small group doing something bigger than expected.

Seniors and JVs

He praised all his seniors, especially Robert Johnson [two-way lineman with a late broken leg], Andy Kornegay [two-way back], Andrew Pender [jack-of-all-trades on offense], and Daniel Forsythe [end/linebacker]. Plus Ben Poinsett [linebacker/receiver] and Isiai Gomez [two-way back].”

And he’s excited about a boatload of rising sophomores and juniors moving up from the JV team, which was undefeated until dropping its last two ECC games to Southwest Onslow and Wallace-Rose Hill.

A couple he mentioned are Stephon Stanley, “a phenomenal athlete,” Josh Mitchell “with a lotta speed and toughness,” Tyquise Wilson and Shykwon Williams.

“Plus a host of linemen, some bigger kids who’ve been lifting all year.”

His staff will be looking for increased competition, but there are 10 defensive starters returning, some still to reach their physical and football maturity.

“Some other kids will be pushing the returnees,” he said, “and that’s what you need.”

Grady, JK Class of 2000, is the first ol’ Tiger to be their head football coach since Billy Byrd (1978-94), Class of 1964.

“When I was 18,” Grady said, “I got a tiger tattoo on my left shoulder. I probably wouldn’t do it again, being a pastor and all, but it’s where my heart is, and I mean that thing.”

Expectations

Grady said that when he talked to J.P. Price before Friday’s game, “He said he’d finally gotten the program where he wanted it, and they’d been going strong in the weight room four years.

“My expectation is that with a few more years of lifting and maturity, we’ll see the same kind of fruits of our labor.”

Grady said he’s confident in the team’s basic formations and strategies, carved out with the Pugh coordinators: father Randy on offense and son Tyler on defense.

Both are steeped in Tiger tradition, Randy as a coordinator for Avent Jr. and Tyler as a an inside linebacker, both on the 2013 state title team.

“Our biggest excitement,” he said, “is that we had a winning record and we’ve got a majority of our players back, a majority of starters both ways, 10 on defense, and our whole offensive line.”

Grady also gave a shout-out to the Tiger fan base, which took a good following last Friday to the border town.

“I’d like to say how great it is that Friday nights out there felt like football games again,” he said. “We had a great atmosphere, even at the JV games.”

Game statistics

The Wolfpack outgained JK 504-92 in total offense, including 434-86 rushing, averaging 15 yards a carry.

E.J. McLeod ran for 111 yards and scored four touchdowns, including a 90-yard kickoff return, dashes of 47 and 45 yards and a 32-yard pass from Zion Wilson.

Brandon Tyson also scored twice, one a 50-yard run, and led in rushing with 188 yards on 12 carries.

The No. 4 seed Wolfpack (11-0) next hosts No. 5 St. Pauls (10-0). The teams are old rivals from the old Three Rivers Conference.

Old rivals

Speaking of old rivals, Price’s Wolfpack is in a different East Region bracket from East Duplin and Wallace-Rose Hill, who meet Friday in Beulaville.

So even if Price keeps winning, he couldn’t meet that Duplin County winner until the East final (fifth round in the new expanded brackets).

Tiger Tales

• JK leads the series 3-1. Its most recent win was 17-7 in the third round of the 2013 playoffs at home. The Tigers won back-to-back games in 1971 (33-0) and ’72 (21-7).

• The previous JK record for points yielded in a playoff game came in a 48-10 loss to Clinton in 2018’s first round. The old mark for margin of defeat was 44-0 by Wallace-Rose Hill in 2003.

• The Tigers are now 49-30 (.620) in all playoff games, 24-11 (.686) in the first round, 11-13 (.458) in the second, 8-1 (.889) in the third, 4-4 (.500) in the fourth, and 2-1 (.667) in the fifth (state finals).

Notes: Their state title in 1960 came in the fourth round. Also included are the Division II two-round playoffs for conference runnerups (1981-84). JK won both games in 1984, so they’re not reflected in the third-round record.

Bill Rollins can be reached at yorollo@yahoo.com.

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com