RALEIGH — The first state championship appearance in St. Pauls history didn’t end the way the Bulldogs had hoped on Thursday with a 42-14 loss to Salisbury — and the disappointment felt, especially for the seniors who played their final game, is beyond understandable.
But the St. Pauls team from the spring of 2021 will be remembered decades from now as a history-making squad, and the Bulldogs can hold their heads high as they walk off the field.
They are the first St. Pauls football team to ever play for a state championship — the first team from any Robeson County school since Maxton High won the title in 1975, even before some of their parents were born.
Facing two hurricanes and a pandemic over the last 4 1/2 years makes their success all the more remarkable.
“Behind me is the most resilient squad I’ve ever coached,” Bulldogs coach Mike Setzer said, surrounded by his seniors at a postgame press conference. “These guys have been through a lot in the public schools, with two floods and things like that. We have every reason to make an excuse not to be good … but these guys are definitely the diamonds of our county.”
Out of about 400 schools that play football in the NCHSAA across all classifications, St. Pauls was one of the last 16 standing. They did it after breaking the first-round curse — those are their words — then winning two more playoff games to reach the final.
In doing so, they captured the support of not just northern Robeson County, but the entire county.
“The town has backed us, the county has backed all the kids, and that was evident from everybody that came out,” said Jason Suggs, St. Pauls’ principal, who played on St. Pauls’ previous regional finalist in 1992, and was born the same year as the county’s last football finalist. “There were a lot of people there from St. Pauls, yes, but there were a lot of people from Robeson County in general. They came out fully supporting, RobCo strong.”
The crowd on the St. Pauls side at Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday night — easily outnumbering the Salisbury delegation — continued its positive energy and support even as the Bulldogs’ prospects of winning became increasingly dire.
“They never gave up on us,” senior linebacker Erick Washington said. “And that shows the support that helped get us here too.”
The Bulldogs’ hard work and determination also helped them get to the final, proving itself in the on-field results this season.
“Without bragging, I think we work harder than everybody else in our county,” Setzer said. “These kids want to work, and I know in our county our kids are understanding that if you want to get to a level like this, if you want to be successful, you have to do more than what the coach gives you. You have to have a love for it, but you also have to have some guys come together.”
But the reasons for St. Pauls to be proud extend beyond what happened on the field to the young men they are off the field. It was even evident after the game Thursday, as several Bulldogs greeted their victorious opponents with congratulatory handshakes — done voluntarily, with no handshake lines in this COVID-tinged season.
“These guys are going to go on and be great citizens one day, becuase they’ve already had so much adversity where they shouldn’t be,” Setzer said. “Looking around, we’ve got National Honor Society kids here. I’m just so proud of them; there’s nothing else I can say to them right now, but they know I love them all like sons.”
“We know that football can be a way out,” senior defensive end Enrique Lopez-Ray said. “If my grades aren’t good enough, but my talent is, I’ve got to push my grades — I’ve got to. We push ourselves in the classroom, the weight room, on the football field. We don’t do it for celebration, we don’t do it for these moments; we do it for (the next) 40 years.”
Even as 13 of these Bulldogs graduate, the class of 2021 has led a culture change — one which Setzer believes will continue to pay dividends on the field for years to come.
“I don’t believe it’s going to take that long for us to get back to this spot,” Setzer said. “These guys have set the bar. Our practices are different, they walk the halls are different, the way they lead is different. I don’t have to do a lot of coaching.”
And years from now — perhaps when their children or grandchildren are donning the Bulldogs’ blue and white — they’ll have plenty to tell future generations about.
“These memories will last forever with them,” said Robeson County’s most successful football player Vonta Leach, an all-pro fullback and Super Bowl champion, who currently serves on the Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education. “That’s something they’re going to tell their kids and their grandkids about. It didn’t end like we wanted it to, but they’ve got a lot of memories and a lot of stuff to take with them through their lives later on.”
And even through saddened stares after the game Thursday night, some of the Bulldogs were already able to express their pride in what the team accomplished.
“Win or lose, I was proud of y’all boys,” senior wide receiver and defensive end Will Ford said to the other seniors. “I don’t want to play with nobody else but y’all.”
“Our freshman, sophomore and junior years were hard,” Washington said. “So to make it this far, it took a lot, but we did it. I’m proud of my boys — we’re brothers for life.”
That pride will only intensify over time as the sting of defeat lessens and the appreciation of history intensifies.
“They may hurt right now, because nobody wants to lose, but they’re going to look back on how this impacted their lives, and how they impacted the town, the school and the community,” Suggs said.
“And they’ll be proud. They’ll be proud.”