EC2A football coaches narrowly pick Kinston to win 2019 title
The head football coaches of the Eastern Carolina 2A met Tuesday in Ayden for their annual meeting. They are, from left, Kinston’s Ryan ‘Diesel’ Gieselman, Ayden-Grifton’s Paul Cornwell, West Craven’s Michael Twichell, Greene Central’s Jay Wilson, South Lenoir’s Jeremy Joyner and Washington’s Jon Blank. North Lenoir’s Jim Collins was unavailable for the photo. Photo by Bryan Hanks / Neuse News
AYDEN — A season after going undefeated in the Eastern Carolina 2A football race, Kinston was selected by the league’s coaches to win the 2019 title.
Oh, but it was such a close vote.
In an exclusive poll conducted by Neuse News at the EC2A’s athletics directors/football coaches meeting at Ayden’s Bum’s Restaurant, the league’s seven coaches — Ayden-Grifton’s Paul Cornwell, Greene Central’s Jay Wilson, Kinston’s Ryan “Diesel” Gieselman, North Lenoir’s Jim Collins, South Lenoir’s Jeremy Joyner, Washington’s Jon Blank and West Craven’s Michael Twichell — were able to vote for all teams but their own. Six points were awarded for first place, five for second place, etc.
Showing how balanced the league is likely to be in 2019, four separate programs received at least one first-place vote.
The Vikings, coming off a season in which they didn’t lose a game until the third round of the state playoffs, received 32 points and three first-place votes to finish first among the seven teams. Ayden-Grifton was a close second-place with 30 points and one first-place vote, followed by West Craven (29 points, two first-place votes) and Washington (23 points, one first-place vote).
Greene Central (15 points) was picked to finish fifth by the coaches, followed by South Lenoir (10 points) and North Lenoir (eight points).
At last year’s EC2A coach’s meeting, Kinston was picked to finish fourth, but ended up with a perfect 6-0 mark in the league. The 2018 season marked the fourth time in the program’s history — including the 2008, 2011 and 2015 campaigns — the Vikings finished undefeated in conference play.
“It’s not about the preseason polls, but where we wind up at the end of the year,” said Gieselman, whose Vikings finished 12-1 after losing at 2A Eastern Regional champion Elizabeth City Northeastern in the third round of the playoffs. “We were projected to finish fourth in the preseason polls last year, so all this means is we’ve got a bull’s eye on our back. Our focus is to get better in practice every day because we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
Ayden-Grifton finished 7-5 overall last season and 4-2 in the league, good for third place. The Chargers advanced to the postseason for a remarkable 18th consecutive season in 2018 and lost in overtime at Kinston in the first round of the state playoffs.
Since taking over as the A-G head coach before the 2005 season, Cornwell’s teams are 124-62 overall and have never missed a postseason. While he acknowledges his 2019 squad has some solid talent, he is concerned about his team’s depth.
“Hopefully, we can find some more players,” Cornwell said. “We’ve got a good group of guys and can put 11 players on the field and compete with anyone, but if we have injuries, we’ll be in trouble. We’ve got to stay healthy this season and add depth.”
Playing one of the state’s toughest nonconference schedules for a 2A program, West Craven — the 2018 preseason coach’s favorite — was 1-4 in out-of-league contests in 2018. However, the Eagles rebounded to go 5-1 in the EC2A to finish second to Kinston in league play and later advanced to the second round of the state playoffs before losing to Hertford County.
The Eagles coach is excited about his team’s prospects in 2019.
“We’ve got a lot of questions and guys people don’t know,” Twichell said. “We’ve added some good coaches on the staff and this might be the best team we’ve put out in the Eastern Carolina Conference. Our defense will be led by the returning defensive player of the year in Tyquan Kearny, and athletically we might be the best we’ve been since 2016.”
Last year, Washington missed the postseason after finishing 4-7 overall and 2-4 in the EC2A, good for fifth place. The Pam Pack coach saw his team receive one first-place vote at Tuesday’s meeting and are picked to finish fourth.
Like his coaching compatriots, Blank thinks the 2019 league race is wide open.
“We’re bringing back a lot of experience and I think we’ll be highly competitive,” Blank said. “Our kids have to be ready to prepare for Friday night lights because this conference is going to be loaded. I feel like any team in the top five is in contention for the conference championship.”
Greene Central boasts the EC2A’s only new head football coach in 2019. Although Wilson has never been a head coach of a varsity football program, he is recognized throughout ENC as being one of the top up-and-coming coaches in his field.
He was a defensive backs coach for the Rams the previous two seasons, including last year when GC finished 6-6 overall and fourth in the EC2A with a 3-3 league mark. Wilson said he wasn’t surprised the league’s coaches picked his Rams to finish fifth this year.
“We sort of expected to fall there, but we know every night will be a dogfight,” Wilson said. “I think No. 3 through 5 is lumped together, and that’s two to three plays a game. We’ll use this ranking as motivation for the guys and hopefully they’ll be ready to work every day.”
South Lenoir broke a 10-game conference losing streak last season that dated back to the 2016 season finale when it routed archrival North Lenoir, 46-14, in Deep Run. That victory marked the Blue Devils’ lone league win in 2018 and helped them finish sixth in the EC2A after being picked to finish last by the coaches.
“We’re working on climbing that ladder one team at a time,” Joyner said. “We were projected to go seventh last year and we’re continuing the process as we get the program where I want it to be here at South Lenoir.”
It would be hard to find a program that had tougher luck than North Lenoir in 2018. In Collins’ first season in Wheat Swamp, the Hawks went 0-10 overall and finished in last place in the EC2A. It marked the first winless campaign for the NL football program since 2007, when the Hawks went 0-11.
However, the Hawks led in the fourth quarter of a few games last season, including against eventual league champion Kinston before bowing 20-19. Collins pooh-poohed the coach’s poll in which his Hawks are picked to finish in last place; he said he has confidence in this year’s squad.
“I’ve been picked first and last, so I’m not really worried about the poll,” Collins said. “Like I’ve told the kids, it’s about the next play and nobody knows about the work they have put in over the summer.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, the league’s coaches also predicted who they thought would be the top players on both side of the ball.
Greene Central’s Knowledge Branch was named the Offensive Preseason Player of the Year by receiving three votes from the EC2A coaches. The junior running back rushed for 824 yards and 10 touchdowns as the backup to A.J. Dupree in 2018.
“He’s been very focused,” Wilson said of Branch. “A.J. Dupree was great for us last year, but he’s ready to come out of his shadow — he said he wanted to tote the mail this summer and I’ll be the one to hand it to him. I’ve been calling him Karl Malone and he may not get the reference, but he’ll be our Mailman.”
Ayden-Grifton senior running back Michael Webb received two votes for the top offensive player while his Chargers’ teammate, junior quarterback Josh Wright, received one vote. West Craven senior quarterback Trent Case received the other coach’s vote.
There was a three-way tie for Defensive Preseason Player of the Year with Ayden-Grifton’s J.C. Darden and Webb, along with West Craven’s Tyquan Kearney. With Webb also receiving two votes for Offensive Player of the Year, Cornwell said he appreciated his senior’s two-way versatility.
“Michael’s one of the best players on our team over the last two years,” Cornwell said. “On defense, he’s had five-plus interceptions each of those seasons and had a 107-yard interception last year against West Craven. On offense, he does a little bit of everything — he’ll play running back, wide receiver, kick and punt return. He’s a jack of all trades.
“J.C. will be more of a hybrid, playing linebacker and defensive end. He’ll have a new position on offense as a tight end, but we’re going to find a way to utilize his skills better on both sides.”
Twichell said Kearney has been everything a coach can ask for over the years.
“Last season, he had 152 tackles and 22 for a loss,” Twichell said of his star junior linebacker. “Pound for pound, he’s the strongest guy in our program and has been a leader over the past two seasons. He’s out there giving his all with practices, sprints, film sessions. As a coach, you could have practice at 5 p.m. and mow the grass at 9 a.m., and he’s out there doing agility drills, working with some guys, then take a break to eat lunch and get ready to go back out.”
Greene Central senior nose guard Greg Daniels received the other defensive vote.
The 2019 prep football season kicks off on Friday, Aug. 23 and all seven EC2A teams will be in action that night. League play begins Friday, Oct. 4; the final regular season games are scheduled for Friday, Nov. 8 with the state playoffs slated to begin the following week.
Neuse News Editor Bryan Hanks contributed to this report.
Neuse News Eastern Carolina 2A preseason football poll
School — points (first-place votes)
1. Kinston — 32 (3)
2. Ayden-Grifton — 30 (1)
3. West Craven — 29 (2)
4. Washington — 23 (1)
5. Greene Central — 15
6. South Lenoir — 10
7. North Lenoir — 8
Preseason offensive player of the year (votes)
1. Knowledge Branch, Greene Central junior running back (3)
2. Michael Webb, Ayden-Grifton senior running back (2)
T-3. Trent Casey, West Craven senior quarterback (1)
Josh Wright, Ayden-Grifton junior quarterback (1)
Preseason defensive player of the year (votes)
T-1. J.C. Darden, Ayden-Grifton senior linebacker (2)
T-1. Tyquan Kearney, West Craven junior linebacker (2)
T-1. Michael Webb, Ayden-Grifton senior defensive back (2)
4. Greg Daniels, Greene Central senior nose guard (1)