Monday, September 6, 2010

The Trip to Beulaville

Except for an occasional trip down I-40, I had never made a stop in Duplin County before last Friday night.

But there I was - standing at the home of East Duplin football - Charles R. Powers Stadium, the site of the first-ever meeting of the Gryphons and the Panthers.

And immediately, I had feelings that I was in Pinetops.

East Duplin's colors are navy blue, light blue and white - the same as SouthWest Edgecombe's
. A huge light blue panther paw was painted at midfield, with smaller versions placed around the periphery of the field. As you may know, a panther and a cougar are pretty much one in the same.

Fans of East Duplin arrive early at their home games. They were filing in an hour before the game.

And the Panther fans have an unusual tradition.

Like doting parents seated behing the backstop at their kids' Little League baseball games, fans actually plop down their canvas folding chairs and sit two yards behind each end zone.

Yes, a line of seated patrons the width of the football field at both ends of the gridiron.

A two-foot barrier drawn on the field beyond the end line defines this unusual seating arrangement. Several of these fans are kinda up in age. I'm sure many of them are someone's grandparents.

I'd be scared to death to run a fade route through the end zone and run into these guys!

And fans are close to action even from the stands.

For as long as I have been attending Rocky Mount games, this is the fifth different road venue I can remember that had no track surrounding the playing field. The old version of Durham County Stadium (where the Gryphons have played Northern Durham, Hillside and defunct Durham Senior High), and fields at Goldsboro and Southern Wayne.

And I know you old time RMHS fans remember playing Greenville Rose at ECU's then-called Ficklen Stadium.

East Duplin has been a 2-A powerhouse for years led by head coach Brian Aldridge. Aldridge has head coached a combined 25 years at East Duplin and Whiteville — at East Duplin from 1985 to 1989 and 1993 to the present, and at Whiteville from 1990 to 1993 (he was replaced there by current Roanoke Rapids head coach Russell Weinstein who left the head job at Tarboro to coach the Wolfpack). Aldridge has a career coaching record of 223-81-1.

But this will be the last season on the sidelines for Aldridge, or should I say, in the press box.

Unusually, Aldridge, 54, calls his offense from the press box on a headset - the only coach from his staff stationed up top. He announced that this would be his last season and he will retire from teaching at the end of the school year.

But this is not the first time Aldridge has announced his retirement. The Aldridge family was hit with tragedy in late 2006 when its youngest daughter was killed in an automobile accident.

After the 2007 season, he decided to call it quits. But after a six-week period over Christmas, he, with the support of his family, decided to come back to the program.

East Duplin went 8-6 in 2008 and 12-1 in 2009, but he has decided to call it quits for good after this season.

A member of N.C. football coaching royalty is waiting in the wings to be his replacement.
Battle Holley, son of the state's winningiest coach Jack Holley (Wallace-Rose Hill, South Columbus, Tabor City), brought Kinston back to prominence in football the last few seasons.

But the younger Holley's wife is an East Duplin alum and has always wanted to return her home town area. Holley resigned as head coach at Kinston this summer and took an assistant position with the Panthers.

You want to bet Holley won't be East Duplin's next head coach?

And there is a connection between the elder Holley and Rocky Mount. Former Rocky Mount head coach and AD Walt Wiggins played college football with Holley in the early 60s at Guilford College.