Lady Braves fight back, fall short against Chowan | #students | #parents

From the triumphs on the field and court to a few more serious stories, there was plenty to talk about in Robeson County sports in 2020.

This included everything from deep playoff runs to high school and collegiate realignment to coaching changes and even the death of a recent star athlete.

Here are the 10 biggest sports stories in Robeson County from this year:

No. 1 — St. Pauls state championship appearance

For the first time since 1975, a football team from Robeson County played for a state championship when St. Pauls faced Salisbury on May 6 at Raleigh’s Carter-Finley Stadium, culminating a unique spring campaign after COVID-19 pushed the season back from the fall of 2020.

While the Bulldogs were on the short end of a 42-14 score in the final, that doesn’t diminish what they accomplished to get there. They reached the 2AA East Regional final after a 35-9 win over Randleman and a 14-0 win over SouthWest Edgecombe in the first two playoff rounds.

St. Pauls then won 34-23 on the road at Washington to advance to the state final, a game punctuated by a late blocked punt by Will Ford, returned for a touchdown by Erick Washington, two of the team’s senior leaders.

“I’m so proud of these guys because we made history,” Setzer said after the state championship game. “Every once in a while every 20 years from now you’ll probably have a dream about (losing) the game, but the one thing about it is you can always say you made a game. We did something that’s never been done at our school, won the regional.”

The Bulldogs repeated as conference champions this fall — they haven’t lost a regular-season game since Nov. 1, 2019 — and reached the fourth round of the state playoffs before a 45-28 loss at top-seeded Princeton, earning back-to-back nailbiting wins the previous two rounds against Roanoke Rapids and Whiteville.

Junior running back Kemarion Baldwin twice broke the Robeson County single-game rushing record, including a 460-yard, six-touchdown performance against Roanoke Rapids, the ninth-most yards in a game in state history. Baldwin was named Robeson County Heisman by The Robesonian for both the spring and fall seasons.

No. 2 — COVID-19’s continued impact on sports

From the unique sports schedule over the first half of 2021 due to seasons pushed back from the previous fall, to the news reported relatively often that a team was in quarantine due to cases or exposure, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect the local sports landscape throughout its second year. Here are a few of the biggest examples of its impact:

The UNC Pembroke men’s basketball team opted out of the season on Feb. 8. Players came to the decision after frustrations regarding the multiple pauses to the season, which to that point had only included six games. The Braves have returned with a flourish this winter and are currently 9-1 and ranked third in the Division II Southeast Region.

The boys and girls basketball teams from St. Pauls both were eliminated from the state playoffs before the second round after multiple cases within each program. The Bulldogs boys had one loss on the season at the time and the Lady Bulldogs were undefeated.

Four of the five football programs in Robeson County had at least one stoppage due to virus protocols during the spring season; four of the five also had at to pause their season at least once this fall. Purnell Swett players were forced to quarantine three separate times before playing a game and the Rams did not play until Oct. 2, ultimately going 1-5.

No. 3 — UNC Pembroke’s new conference, success

The year 2021 was another prolific year for UNC Pembroke athletics. The Braves program joined Conference Carolinas officially on July 1, after announcing the impending move in 2020, after three decades in the Peach Belt Conference.

Before the move, the Braves baseball program won the PBC regular-season title, its first such title in history. Unfortunately the Braves faded in the postseason, losing in the PBC semifinal series before they were eliminated after two straight losses in the NCAA Southeast Regional. In July pitcher/second baseman River Ryan became the program’s first MLB Draft selection in seven years.

The school’s swimming and indoor track teams also won conference championships this spring, and wrestling’s Nick Daggett made an individual run all the way to a runner-up finish at NCAA nationals.

This fall, the women’s soccer team won the Conference Carolinas Tournament championship, defeating Mount Olive in the championship; the Braves lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Joshua Chepkesir also won an individual conference title in cross country — his fourth straight — and finished eighth at NCAA nationals; teammate Jackline Kosgei won the women’s conference title.

No. 4 — Lumberton basketball returns to regional

The Lumberton boys basketball team won the 4A East Regional championship in 2020, which became a co-state championship when the pandemic’s onset ended the state tournament. In 2021, led by the senior trio of Robeson County Player of the Year Charlie Miller, Matt Locklear and Jadarion Chatman, the Pirates made another deep playoff run and returned to the regional final.

Like 2020, Lumberton’s first playoff win was at home before the rest came on the road; the Pirates beat Leesville Road 59-53 in the first round, then earned a 64-47 win over Laney and a 54-50 win over Pinecrest, who they also beat in the 2020 regional final, to reach the regional final again.

The Pirates lost 79-77 to Millbrook after coming from seven down in the final 43 seconds to force overtime; four days later, Millbrook defeated Ardrey Kell to win the 4A state championship.

“Last year our expectations were not as high as they ended up,” Lumberton coach Bryant Edwards said. “This year, once we got to that point, we wanted to taste that (championship) feeling again. Our expectation next year is to get back to this point.”

The Pirates are currently 8-1 to start the 2021-22 season.

No. 5 — Kelvin Sampson leads Houston to Final Four

When the University of Houston men’s basketball team reached its first Final Four since 1984 this spring, they did so with a Pembroke native leading the way, as head coach Kelvin Sampson, a former two-sport star athlete at UNC Pembroke, reached the Final Four for the second time in his coaching career.

Houston, who was 28-4 on the season, reached the Final Four with a 67-61 win over Oregon State in the Midwest Regional final; in previous rounds, the Cougars defeated Cleveland State 87-56, Rutgers 63-60 and Syracuse 62-46. Baylor defeated Houston 78-59 on April 6 in the national semifinal.

Sampson, a member of the Lumbee Tribe, reached the Final Four in 2002 as Oklahoma head coach; doing so at Houston completed a career reclamation. NCAA violations ended Sampson’s two-year tenure at Indiana in 2008, and he spent the next six years in multiple NBA organizations as an assistant coach before becoming Houston’s head coach in 2014. The Cougars have improved each year under Sampson, culminating in the Final Four appearance.

Houston is off to a 10-2 start in the 2021-22 season.

No. 6 — The death of Marqueise Coleman

In the early-morning hours of July 29, former St. Pauls running back Marqueise Coleman, 19, was shot to death in St. Pauls.

Coleman graduated from St. Pauls in 2020 and was set to play his freshman season for Fayetteville State University this fall. The case remains unsolved; a reward for $8,000 is being offered for any information leading to an arrest in the case.

“He led through his play and not through his words,” St. Pauls football coach Mike Setzer said. “As a football player, he didn’t talk a lot, but he played with his heart on his sleeve. That’s what I remember about him is a big smile and a never-say-quit kind of attitude. A really great guy; a really solid leader. All our kids looked up to him; a really solid guy.”

The memory of the 2019 Robeson County Heisman was front and center throughout the Bulldogs’ fall season; captains took Coleman’s No. 32 jersey to midfield for the coin toss before each game, the number 32 was painted on the G.S. Kinlaw Stadium field at each 32-yard line and the number was visible on many towels and sweatbands worn by the team.

No. 7 — Lonnie Cox comes home to Fairmont

Fairmont alumnus Lonnie Cox returned to his alma mater to become the head football coach; he was hired on May 17 to replace George Coltharp, who resigned after one season.

The 2009 Fairmont graduate had served as an assistant coach with the Golden Tornadoes from 2014-16 and was head coach at Union Pines for the previous two seasons with a 12-7 record.

“This is an absolute dream come true and something I longed and prayed for all throughout my life,” Cox said. “This has always been my destination and dream job; the place I want to continually invest in and pour into for the rest of my career.”

The Golden Tornadoes showed improvement over the second half of the season despite a 2-7 record this fall, earning wins over East Bladen and Red Springs and playing a close game with Southeastern Athletic Conference champion St. Pauls.

No. 8 — Glenn Patterson becomes AD, steps down as coach

After 25 years as the Red Springs boys basketball coach, Glenn Patterson stepped down from that position and transitioned into the Red Devils’ athletic-director role in a move announced June 15.

The AD role opened up when Chris Howell took the same job at Heide Trask. Patterson’s first move as AD at his alma mater was to appoint his son, Glenn Patterson Jr., as head boys basketball coach; Patterson Jr. had been an assistant coach for his father for the previous three years. Patterson Sr. remained in the program as an assistant coach.

“A guy asked me a few years ago what’s it like coaching, and I said it’s like living the dream,” Patterson Sr. said. “To be blessed to be at one place for 28 years, and the head coach for 25, I’m blessed, I’m truly blessed. I couldn’t be more happier to hand it to my son.”

Adam Deese also became the athletic director at Lumberton, as the Pirates head football coach expanded his role, after Mackie Register stepped down from the AD position this spring.

No. 9 — Purnell Swett teams reach third round

Both the softball and baseball teams from Purnell Swett each made historic runs to the first round of the state playoffs this spring.

The Rams softball team, who was 13-3, reached the third round for the first time in recent history after winning the Sandhills Athletic Conference title, clinching with four runs in its last at-bat in a thrilling walk-off win over Lumberton in the regular-season finale, and defeating Apex Friendship 2-1 in nine innings for another walk-off victory in the second round of the playoffs. Purnell Swett lost 1-0 to Fuquay-Varina in the third round.

Two remarkable stories emerged from that Rams team: pitcher/third baseman Chan Locklear returned to the field just eight days after a near-death experience resulting from a severe allergic reaction and asthma attack, and pitcher Summer Bullard, a Charleston Southern signee, struck out 31 batters over 16 innings in the Rams’ final two games in less than 24 hours while pitching with a torn labrum in her left shoulder.

Purnell Swett’s baseball team finished third in the SAC and had to go on the road from the start of the 4A state playoffs, but beat South View 5-3 and Middle Creek 7-4 to reach the third round for the first time in school history. The Rams lost 8-6 at Ashley in the third round.

No. 10 — Legion softball team plays first season

American Legion baseball hasn’t been played in Robeson County since 2007, but a new American Legion softball program began in the county this summer — and put a competitive team on the field.

The team, representing Robeson County Post 5, was 21-4-2 in its inaugural season, won the Area II championship and finished third at the American Legion state tournament in Shelby.

Many of the county’s best high school softball players participated for Post 5, helping turn a brand new program into one that immediately contended for the state title.

“The last several years, word came up, there’s talk about it; there’s a lot to get it going, but once you get it going it’s contagious, and I think we’ll see even more girls play next year,” Post 5 head coach Jamie Dover said. “Somebody just had to put their foot forward and get it going; we’ve done that.”

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