Football

Showdown in K-Town: Defending 8-man champs face off Thursday

Posted August 16

— In a city known mostly for its prep hoops prowess, a truly unique thing will happen Thursday night: Two defending state champions – both located within the Kinston city limits and only 5 miles apart – will take on each other on the football field.

Two-time defending North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A 8-man champion Arendell Parrott Academy will welcome Bethel Christian Academy – the defending NCISAA 1A 8-man champion – to Hodges Field at 7 p.m.

It’s a game that is poised to have a standing-room-only crowd in place for kickoff.

“People are going to want to come and see two state champions,” Arendell Parrott Academy senior quarterback Connor Bright said. “There should be a really good atmosphere.”

Parrott head coach Matt Beaman said, “It’s going to be great for the city of Kinston. People are going to realize there is pretty good football being played in Kinston. We’re always recognized for basketball, which is deserving, but there is pretty good football in this area, as well.”

The leader of the Trojans agreed.

“This game is going to be huge for our community,” Bethel Christian Academy coach Brick Crowder said. “When you have two state champions opening the season against each other, it’s a big deal.”

2016 RECAP

The programs took circuitous – but similar – routes to their respective titles last year. After playing a junior varsity schedule in 2015, Bethel – in its first season of varsity action since the 1970s – started the 2016 season by losing its first three games by a combined 140-56 margin. But the Trojans won their final nine games of the season, culminating in a 40-0 win against Halifax Academy in the 1A championship game.

They did it in spectacular fashion, outscoring their opponents by an average of 37.3 points per game over the final eight games.

Crowder, who is also a youth pastor at Bethel, admitted he didn’t think his young Trojans would win a state title in its first season.

“I really didn’t,” he said with a laugh in his office this week. “I was hoping we’d be competitive. I was more worried with how our participation would be at a small Christian school. Depth is a huge issue with 8-man football and I was worried about ours.

“We stayed healthy and remained healthy the whole season. We also had great senior leadership last year from guys like Jonathan Truett and Cole Williams. All of that came together for us.”

Likewise, Parrott suffered through a four-game losing streak midway through their 2016 campaign. However, the Patriots rallied in the final stretch of the season to upset Raleigh St. David’s – a team that had beaten them in a three-overtime thriller earlier in the season – 23-16 in the 2A championship game. It was Parrott’s second straight 2A championship and the third in program history, harkening back to 1990.

Football: Arendell-Parrott Academy vs St. Davids (Nov. 11, 2016)

BETHEL-PARROTT, PART 1

The teams met each other for the first time since the 1970s on Sept. 9, 2016. Bethel entered that contest with an 0-3 record after being drubbed by Rocky Mount Academy and Courtland (Va.) Southampton Academy by identical 50-18 scores and losing 40-20 to 8-man heavyweight St. David’s in a driving rainstorm.

On the other hand, Parrott entered the game with a 3-0 record after shutting out Merry Hill Lawrence Academy and defeating Wilson Community Christian and Wayne Christian.

It’s not a stretch to say there was virtually no one outside the Bethel locker room who thought the Trojans had a chance against the Patriots.

The Trojans discovered their offense, though, and won a shootout for the ages with the Patriots, 54-46.

“It took a lot of heart from us,” Bethel senior linebacker Sincere McDonald said. “Everyone just came together and manned up. No one gave us a chance and that drove us.”

Crowder said, “We escaped – and yes, I use the word ‘escape’ – out of there with that win. Parrott had grabbed the momentum and was coming for us.”

The Trojans didn’t lose again in 2016 after their win at Parrott.

“That (Parrott) win just gave us a spark we used the rest of the season,” McDonald said.

The Bethel loss marked the first of four in a row for the Patriots, who righted the ship against Cary Christian on Oct. 25 and won the 2A title by defeating St. David’s, who had downed them in triple-overtime earlier in the season.

“Honestly, I think our players overlooked them that night,” Beaman said of last year’s loss to Bethel. “I know our coaching staff didn’t, because we knew they were going to be very competitive. We were banged up that night and before we knew it, we couldn’t stop them and we were in a shootout. … But we are taking that loss as motivation.”

REVIVAL AT BETHEL

The rebirth of football at Bethel, which fielded its last team in 1978, was – ironically – due to help from Beaman. In January 2015, he sent Crowder a text message that Crowder credits as the impetus for restarting the Trojan program. Bethel plays the remainder of its sports in the North Carolina Christian Schools Association, but Beaman lobbied for the Trojans to be included for 8-man football in the Colonial Carolina Conference of the NCISAA.

Beaman’s lobbying with the NCISAA worked. Crowder was ecstatic when he received the text from Beaman – and he said it started the (foot)ball rolling for the program.

“The text basically said if we really wanted to start football, he thought he could get us into the Colonial Carolina Conference,” Crowder said. “Conversations had already been going on, but when I got that text, it changed our world.”

Beaman said he’s passionate about 8-man football and wants to see it succeed in North Carolina. He said the NCISAA had allowed Southampton Academy back into the association as a football-only member and he thought it might do the same for Bethel.

“We want to grow the 8-man league,” Beaman said. “We don’t want to see it fall apart. We feel the 11-man level is something that might be something to sustain (at Parrott) so we want to grow the 8-man.”

Bert Potter, who led the Trojans to an NCCSA state baseball title in 1999 (and was an assistant to Kenny Sutton on the 2010 and 2011 champs) and a state basketball championship in 2014, said the Bethel program’s incredible renaissance is largely due to Crowder’s passion and hard work.

“He came up with everything – the whole plan,” said Potter, a former BCA athletics director who hired Crowder. “It was his baby. He told me it was something God had put on his heart to do; it’s his mission and ministry. As the AD, I just sat back and watch him do his thing.”

PATRIOT BROTHERHOOD

There is more to the Beaman-Crowder relationship than just being opposing coaches on the sideline, though. Crowder was the starting quarterback for the Patriots from 2002-05, where he led the team to state runners-up finishes in 2002 and 2005.

Crowder, who went on to play football at Greensboro College, followed in the footsteps of Beaman, who was Parrott’s starting quarterback from 1998-2001; he led the Patriots to the title game in 2000.

Crowder said walking on the field as an opponent to Parrott wasn’t “real” until just before game-time in 2016.

“It was emotional,” Crowder admitted. “When (longtime coach and public address announcer) Hugh Pollock came onto the field to check on pronunciations on our roster, it hit me: I’m coaching against Parrott Academy, a place where people had done so much for me for a lot of my life. They believed in me when no one else would.

“I will forever be thankful for my time at Parrott.”

Crowder and Beaman played for legendary Parrott coaches Bill Rowe – the winningest football coach in Lenoir County history and a member of the Kinston-Lenoir County Sports Hall of Fame – and Dr. Bert Bright, the current APA headmaster and longtime Rowe assistant who took over the reins of the Patriots program before giving them up to Beaman.

“One of the things I’m proudest of is a photo I had taken right after the game with Coach Rowe and Coach Bright – two men who mean the world to me,” Crowder said. “What we do as a program here at Bethel is a mirror image of what I learned from Bill Rowe and Bert Bright.”

UNDERDOG VS. FAVORITE

Entering the 2017 season, Beaman and Crowder find their championship programs in unfamiliar positions – being a favorite most weeks as opposed to entering games as an underdog.

While Parrott certainly has a proud 8-man football tradition – with titles in 1990, 2015 and 2016 and runner-up finishes in 2000, 2002, 2005, 2011 and 2014 – they’ve achieved most of that success as an underdog. Both titles in the past two years have come with the Patriots going into the championship game as a significant underdog.

That won’t be the case this season. Not only do the Patriots return most of their team this year – one that already has two titles under its belt – it’s a squad that was perfect as a junior varsity program three years ago.

In fact, the 2017 senior Patriots played for an 8-man state title in 2014 and lost before winning the past two seasons.

“They can accomplish something no other football team in school history can do and we preach that to the guys,” Beaman said. “Our guys know they have a target on their back now that they’ve never had before.”

Because of that target, Beaman admitted he’s been more “animated” at practice this preseason.

“I’m trying to get the guys to realize that it’s a little different this year,” he said. “Every rep, I’m trying to get the best out of them. We’re coaching with more intensity and trying to keep them from being satisfied.”

After their surprising inaugural varsity season that ended with a championship, Crowder’s Trojans are also facing the dilemma of being a favorite most weeks as opposed to a fledgling program.

“It’s something we’ve addressed every day after practice,” Crowder said. “Our message to our guys has been that it’ll say a lot about our character in how we handle the success we’ve had as a football program. Last year, nobody believed in us and this year everybody expects us to have success.

“How will we handle that? We just have to remember where we came from as a program. Our seniors need to remember us walking out on that practice field and picking up rocks and pieces of concrete. It’s been a very real message for us all summer and into fall camp.”

THE REMATCH

After the teams won their championships in November, there was a call from some in the Kinston community to play one more time in 2016. However, with both schools already into their winter sports seasons, the movement didn’t gather much steam.

That’s why it was so important to Beaman and Crowder for their teams to start the 2017 season against each other. It wasn’t hard for Beaman, the chairman of the NCISAA football scheduling committee, to make Thursday’s game happen.

“I felt like it would be a great way for us both to kick off the season,” Beaman said. “We’re expecting a great environment.”

Both coaches acknowledge the other’s strengths – Bethel is again going to be a battering ram of a team with its powerful running game.

“They’re going to try to slow the game down, but we’re going to try to speed it up,” Beaman said. “Whichever team is able to establish their style of play and play turnover-free football will win the game.”

Parrott has perfected Beaman’s run-and-gun aerial attack that is led by Connor Bright.

“We’ve got to defend the pass,” Crowder said. “We’re going to have to win up front and get to (Bright).”

Although Thursday’s game will only be the second time Parrott and Bethel have played 8-man football against each other, it’s rapidly becoming a bona fide rivalry. The offseason was strong for both programs – although Bethel only draws from about 100 high school students (male and female), more than 40 boys took part in offseason training for the varsity and JV programs.

And after opening an impressive $500,000 weight room facility for its football program last November (“It’s the best facility east of I-95 for any program, public or private,” Beaman said), the Parrott coach said morale is at an all-time high with record levels of offseason participation.

Thursday’s game might only be the second chapter of the budding rivalry, but the anticipation for the game is at a furor not seen for 8-man football in Kinston.

“We’re fighting for the same things,” McDonald said. “If it’s Bethel and Parrott facing each other, it’s going to be big.”

Bryan C. Hanks is entering his 26th year covering high school sports throughout the state of North Carolina. You can reach him at lenoircountysports@gmail.com.

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