BEULAVILLE—Last week’s second-round 39-22 playoff victory over Clinton had a strong element of revenge for East Duplin.

That’s very true with their fan base, although it dates back 15 to 25 years, when today’s players were still digging around in a sandbox.

The longtime East Central 2A Conference rivals hadn’t met in the playoffs since 2006—and it’s been good riddance for the Duplin County boys.

The Dark Horses were in their all-time prime and the Panthers making their first extended deep-dive runs into the postseason from 1996 through 2006.

In that decade-plus, Clinton won four of its five state 2A championships (1996, 1997, 2001, 2005) and advanced to another final (2006). It had won its first in 1990.

It knocked out East Duplin in every one of those years, going 6-1 versus the Panthers in the 11-year stretch.

Selective memory

Asked to comment on that stretch before the 2006 playoff game, longtime Panther head coach Brian Aldridge said:

“I’m kinda forgetting some history here.

“The only thing I’m concerned with is beating them in the playoffs this year.

“Our kids have to remember we beat them the first time this year over there (21-18), and go out and beat them again.

“What happened last year or any other year should have no bearing on this game.”

Clinton won again 26-13.

Really, ED’s postseason record against the Dark Horses was only slightly worse than their regular-season mark: playoffs 1-6, regular season 2-5.

The Horses were the playoff scourge of Aldridge’s 195-win career in 22 years at East Duplin.

Overall, he won 251 in 28 years, also at Whiteville and Harrells Christian Academy.)

All but one of those prime Clinton years came under legendary coach Bob Lewis. The 2005 title was led by first-year coach Steve Mallard.

Overall, East Duplin is 14-30 against Clinton, but the trend is turning.

Friday’s win makes coach Battle Holley 5-4 in the series.

Not to mention 1-0 in the playoffs.

The rundown

1996: The Panthers came into the game with a 10-1 record and hosted the 2A East Region semifinal (third round). Their only loss had come at home to Clinton (35-14), eventually determining the East Central title. So it was no stunner that the Dark Horses romped in the playoff game 49-7 on the way to the state title.

1997: A year later, East Duplin had set the school mark for wins at 14-0 and had taken the ECC title, including a 13-10 victory in Clinton. But in ED’s first-ever East final (fourth round), Clinton—bound for its second straight 2A crown—made off with a 33-0 victory on the field that now bears Aldridge’s name.

2001: It was the Panthers’ second East final, but the luck of the draw sent them against Clinton, now a member of another conference. This one was in Dark Horse Stadium, but the loss was all-too-familiar at 45-7.

The playoff rivalry was really heating up, and that was the first of their five clashes in six years.

2002: In the third round in Beulaville, East Duplin was unbeaten at 13-0, but Clinton did what it had been doing and won 35-0.

2003: Panthers win! This was the two schools’ only first-round matchup, again at East Duplin, and the home team ground out a 9-7 win.

2005: Clinton was on its way to another state championship, but ED took this second-round clash into overtime before falling 27-21.

2006: Back in Beulaville, the Horses’ long run near the top of the state’s 2A ranks was slowing to a trot. But they managed to snap an eight-game ED win streak with a 26-13 second-round victory.

2021: After a 15-year hiatus, the old rivals’ playoff series resumed last Friday night with ED’s 39-22 breakaway victory.

The Panthers plan for it to be a new dawn of a new day in the rivalry.

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

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com