NCHSAA State Playoffs
2AA East Regional
No. 3 SouthWest Edgecombe (6-2) at No. 2 St. Pauls (6-0)
Friday, 7 p.m.
ST. PAULS — The current edition of the St. Pauls football team isn’t necessarily any more talented than the school’s teams over the last few years.
But this group is one of the last eight teams standing in 2AA football, with a undefeated record as Three Rivers Conference champions.
While other Bulldogs teams of the recent past look similar on paper, there is something different about this year’s team: they have a tighter bond.
“This team, they love each other more, and they’re more disciplined,” coach Mike Setzer said. “Those two things combinate for success. That’s what’s separating these guys, they really love each other and they really accept discipline.”
“We play more as a unit and have more passion, and have more trust in each other, as a team and as a family, and as a brotherhood,” senior defensive lineman Ethan Roberts said. “Everybody’s dialed in and ready to play, and we all have a level of respect for each other and the game, and our coaching staff.”
The Bulldogs (6-0) will take that togetherness into battle Friday as they host SouthWest Edgecombe (6-2) in the second round of the state playoffs. Tickets will be sold at the gate for $8.
Last week’s 35-9 win over Randleman marked the first time the Bulldogs have advanced out of the first round since 2012, with six straight first-round losses in the years since.
This includes last season’s 34-27 loss at Currituck, a game which has motivated the Bulldogs over the last 17 months to be the best version of themselves on the field. They haven’t lost since.
“When we came back, we talked about feeling like we let that — not taking away from Currituck, they did a really good job, but feeling like we didn’t play our best,” Setzer said. “So I’ve been really pleased to see our team play with both sides of the ball and special teams showing up at the same time. Last year, we never really clicked on all three facets of the game, and I’ve been really pleased the last few weeks that special teams, offense and defense have all pitched in and towed their own weight.”
“It motivated us a lot, because we lost to a lesser opponent, the team that we played,” junior quarterback Mikail Breeden said. “We talked about we want to go further this year, because we’ve got the weapons, but it starts with us first.”
But the Bulldogs’ motivation goes beyond how last season ended; it’s also rooted in how this season started. The Bulldogs didn’t play until Week 4 after the team was quarantined just before their scheduled Week 1 game due to COVID-19 protocols.
“One of the things that motivates these guys is we didn’t know if we were going to play or not,” Setzer said. “Looking back at it, while we were so hurt about it when we were quarantined and lost (the chance to play) three games, I think that really has motivated our kids, and the fact that tomorrow’s not promised and the fact that they kind of stay on that for a while.”
Once the team’s quarantine ended and they were able to play again, the Bulldogs took the field with a refreshed spirit and came together to play their best, and take advantage of the opportunities they did have to play the game.
“I felt like the quarantine has made us bond even more, has made us even stronger, and opened our eyes up that the game could be gone within the blink of an eye, so that made us want it even more than we already did,” Roberts said. “And it made us more humble and made us realize that it could end at any time so let’s see how far we can take it.”
The Bulldogs’ 13 seniors are especially grateful for getting to play this season, and for the success the team has had in it.
“Knowing it’s my last year, and I’m not getting it back — not a snap, not a practice, not a rep, nothing over again — that’s what motivates me,” senior wide receiver Will Ford said. “And it can be taken away just like that.”
As those seniors try to keep extending their careers one game at a time, they’re focused solely on this week’s opponent. Setzer says facing the adversity of quarantine has helped the team keep that mindset all season.
“I think us going through that has allowed us to really buy into the philosophy of one game at a time,” Setzer said. “We don’t like to talk about any other game besides SouthWest Edgecombe, and that really helps us focus, helps us cut our rabbit ears off once again. So many people are saying, ‘what’s rabbit ears mean?’ It means we don’t listen to people outside the program. As long as we can keep our rabbit ears short, and remember to keep it one game at a time, we feel like we can have a recipe for success.”
As Friday’s game plays out, many factors could play a role in which team advances to the 2AA East Regional final. But if it comes down to which team is the most together, Friday night could be remembered in northern Robeson County for a long time.
“We have confidence in each other,” Breeden said. “We love on each other, we believe in each other, we don’t fuss or fight with each other, we stay passionate about each other, and if one person does something wrong we get on them and get back and do it again, over and over. That’s how we do it.”
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.