Hugh Martin talks

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s realignment committee has wielded its mighty sword and slayed North Duplin.

It’s really hard to call the committee’s decision—to move one of the smallest schools in the state into what is commonly known as the East Central 2A Conference—a fair one.

The association sent out its first draft of the 2021-2025 Realignment Plan to member schools this week.

The NCHSAA did not give the conference a name other than to say it was Conference 7, which also includes other 2A-sized schools Clinton, East Duplin, James Kenan, Midway and Wallace-Rose Hill, plus 1A Hobbton.

The committee’s annual four-year realignment of schools into four classifications, and then into conferences, took a turn for the worse this time as split-classification conferences abound.

Virtually no one I encounter likes split conferences, be it coaches, players or fans.

ND and Hobbton were both in the Carolina 1A Conference, but when fellow member Princeton jumped to 2A, the NCHSAA threw an atomic bomb on the remaining.

Lakewood and Union went to Conference 10 with 2As East Bladen, Fairmont, Red Springs, St. Pauls and West Bladen.

Rosewood and Neuse Charter were put in Conference 8 with Goldsboro, Princeton, North Johnston, Spring Creek and Eastern Wayne, the latter dropping from 3A to 2A.

Here’s how the numbers play out for the Rebels, who were punished the most severely.

ND has 317 students—less than half the number at James Kenan (663), Wallace-Rose Hill (674), Midway (775) and Clinton (806), and slightly more than one-third of the population at East Duplin (913). Even the Rebels’ historical rival Hobbton (494) has 177 more students.

Look at it this way, football-wise: Despite the short-travel attraction of Duplin County schools scheduling each other, North Duplin has not played East Duplin or Wallace-Rose Hill in a regular-season football game since 1984—pretty much through mutual consent. That was the last year the Rebels were in the ECC with their three county cousins.

Further, ND has only scheduled James Kenan, its closest county school, in a nonconference football game six times since 1984, and not since 2004. The two have been placed in the same conference twice, for a total of eight years, when JK was in the 1A classification.

By mutal consent, ND has not scheduled ED in football since 1894, WRH since 2010 and JK since 2016. The Rebels are 5-13 all-time vs. WRH, 10-20 vs. JK and hold a 16-6 edge against ED (all of which came before Brian Aldridge turned the Panthers’ program around).

In basketball, the Rebel boys have a 3-23 record against their county rivals in the Duplin Holiday Classic. All three wins were in third-place consolation games. The girls are 0-26 all-time in the tourney.

Split-leagues

horribly unfair

“Leagues with 1A/2A splits are really tough for 1A schools,” said ND Athletics Director Ricky Edwards, who also coaches boys basketball and softball. “While I’m sure there are schools that are pleased with this realignment, we are not.”

Member schools may submit those concerns or suggestions to the NCHSAA through an online form by Jan. 8, 2021. The Realignment Committee will reconvene on Jan. 13 to review submissions from schools and make adjustments as appropriate to the first draft.

The second draft of conference alignments will be sent to the membership on Jan. 14.

Once the second draft has been posted, schools will have the opportunity to submit an appeal in writing by Jan. 21. All appeals will be virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seven 2A conferences in the East Region have two or more 1A schools.

Three 2A leagues have 3A schools.

Was there local representation?

Looking over the realignment I’m left to wonder: Was there a “local rep” on the committee?

If so, they don’t know beans about Duplin County, and North Duplin in particular.

“We were shocked when we saw it,” said Rebel football coach Hugh Martin, who has gone 100-80 (.556) in 14 years since 2006 in Calypso, with four Carolina 1A titles and three regional finals. Martin also coached ED from 1990-93, going 18-23.

“Anyone who hasn’t coached at a small school doesn’t understand the concerns. Playing a larger school once in a season is different than a full schedule against larger schools.

“Injuries are devastating to small schools.”

Even tryout numbers are telling.

“We have 100 to 125 boys to pick from,” Edwards said. “That’s it, and other schools we will compete against have twice or three times that amount.”

It also opens up the Rebels for a potential injury list that cripples and punishes them unjustly.

“Common sense tells you a school with 300 students can’t compete against one with 900,” said James Kenan AD Ken Avent Jr., a former Rebel player and coach, who returns to the Tiger football post in February where he led the school to 1AA N.C. titles in 2007 and 2013 and another state final in 2006.

“I may be wrong, but I don’t think Hobbton and North Duplin will (opt to)play football in our league, which could leave us with just four conference games. (Spring Creek opted out of football in 2019 in the ECC, and is now placed elsewhere.)

“Something’s got to change, and I think it will,” Avent said.

If not, ND’s sports programs across the board will be as burnt as toast.

Look, Richlands got shafted, too. The Wildcats moved from 2A to 3A.

Southwest Onslow and fellow 2A East Carteret will play in Conference 16 with 3As Croatan, Dixon, Swansboro, West Carteret and White Oak. And why Richlands is not in this group puzzles me.

But I have less reason to yell at the plight of the Wildcats because the school has 908 students (slightly fewer than ED).

That’s enough players for two or three football teams with ND-like numbers.

Meanwhile, Martin fights annually to get players on the field—any kid to supply much-needed depth to help survive injuries, sickness, and academic casualties.

Ask Harrells Christian or any other small school how difficult it is to have a football team with 25-28 players. While not impossible, it’s as close to that figure as anyone would want to stand. But if you’ve never been in that situation, you would just scoff at the suggestion that the actual number of bodies on a campus is important.

Martin does a fantastic job recruiting players in the school and ND has healthy-looking numbers. ND annually gets 30-40 players, though rarely able to field a junior varsity team.

But once the injuries start, the quality of play decreases on the football field.

Yet most seasons, ND is only a step or two behind its bigger county rivals — in all sports. Softball has been one of the very few exceptions.

Yet ND has done well in 1A football. Martin took undefeated teams to the state finals in 2007 and 2017.

Richlands currently plays in the Coastal 2A/1A Conference, but will be in Conference 19, which has six 3A schools and two 4A schools.

It will be brutal for the Wildcats against the likes of D.H Conley, J.H. Rose, Havelock, Jacksonville, Northside-Jacksonville and New Bern.

No-clue Que

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker had a poor explanation for the committee’s split conference-mania.

“The number of split conferences in this alignment draft represents the Realignment Committee’s desire not to limit those,” she said. “It also takes into consideration the protection of natural rivalries and strongly considers geography and travel time. Of course, this means the way of getting into the playoffs must be reviewed and updated. That will come later.”

Then she praised the committee for its shortsighted and shabby work.

“I am grateful for the commitment and input of the Realignment Committee to faithfully represent the membership in their respective regions during this process. I am also thankful for the hard work of our staff members who diligently worked to meet the established deadlines, while continuing to service the other needs of the membership.”

The NCHSAA also recently announced that there will no longer be subdivision of classes for the football playoffs.

Thus this winter there will only be one state championship for each of the four classes. There are currently eight. Cutting the brackets in half in all classifications will make it inherently difficult for break-even teams to even make the playoffs. ND and JK have recently fallen into that category.

“Eight is too many and four is not enough,” Avent suggested. “Six state champions is what you really need.”

To return to my main topic, putting ND in a league with current ECC schools is beyond crazy.

But things could change.

“It’s just the first draft,” Martin said. “We will appeal this.”

ND is used to being thrown about. The NCHSAA has put the school in the West region in the past.

But no rationalization makes this right.

Time to reverse

the decision

The committee made a horrible decision concerning a tiny school that has always displayed pride in its athletics.

Martin, for example, has to work extremely hard for ND to even break the .500 mark.

That he does it regularly is not a signal to move ND to a higher classification league.

If the change sticks, the NCHSAA will have devastated sports programs at ND.

It’s unfair and also shows how little they know about their membership.

Yes, it is impossible to please all 400 schools throughout the state.

Simple math tells one story. The rest can be heard by anyone willing to listen to the schools in this region of the state.

The NCHSAA has quite a bit in common with the NCAA.

Both care only for their own interests — first and foremost.

Over the years, I’ve seen many schools petition to be moved from their assigned conference or to another classification.

Only a very few win an appeal.

Here’s hoping ND is among the exceptions.

The association’s all-’not’-knowing committee got this one dead wrong when it came to the Rebels.

So, fix it!

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com