This year is easily the best for East Wake High School football since a 9-3 campaign in 2006. That was the last time a Warriors crew posted more than four wins in a season.
East Wake opened this season with a 7-2 record, including a 4-1 mark in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference. Its losses through nine weeks came at the hands of two of The News & Observer’s top-five teams, Wake Forest and Garner.
Since John Poulnott’s first year as head coach in 2010, the program has slowly progressed, going 2-9, 3-8, 3-8 and 4-7 last season. A more competitive team in 2013, a season highlighted by an upset win over Garner, foreshadowed things to come.
This season’s turnaround prompts memories and a great deal of optimism for a program looking to get back to the good old days – those most recently being the 2002-06 seasons. In that time, East Wake had an appearance in the Eastern Regional final (fourth round of state playoffs) in 2002, produced conference titles in 14-1 (2002) and 11-1 (2004) seasons, and never finished worse than 8-4 (2005).
Keep in mind that stretch was preceded by a 6-6 season in 2001, and 3-8 season in 2000.
East Wake’s last trip to the state playoffs was in 2009 – the 14th and final year for coach Jimmy Williams, who is now at West Johnston. The Warriors were defeated by Southern Durham in the first round, capping a 4-8 season that year.
Prior to the final two games of the regular season (last Friday’s game at Harnett Central, this week’s hosting Knightdale) I figured it would be a good time to throw Poulnott some reactionary- and expectations-type questions. After all, the Warriors had a chance to win those two games and enter the state playoffs with a 9-1 record (for seeding purposes), which would likely be good enough to host in the first round.
Here’s what I asked, and what he had to say:
Q: Do the kids realize what they’ve done already this season?
A: There’s a combination of they realize what they’ve done, and that they had the team to do it last year. We feel a year behind where we wanted to be, but there’s a lot of excitement about where they’ve come.
Q: You have a lot of the same players in key positions, right? What’s changed?
A: You’ve got a combination of weight room, and a great summer with camp. We faced a lot of adversity and made it through a lot that tested us as a group, and came out of a lot of that stuff some programs don’t face. We played a lot of good teams this summer to get ready, mentally ... changing our scrimmage and facing Green Hope and putting ourselves in a game with a little more competition. I think the biggest difference is the scheme we went with defensively is a little more aggressive – challenges people physically instead of letting people drop the ball off and get first downs.
Q: Are we talking about playoffs, or not?
A: We’re talking about not being complacent. Just because the newspapers are putting us at 9-1 going into the playoffs, we aren’t talking about that. We’re just trying to make sure our kids are staying hungry.
Q: Aren’t playoffs the goal every year?
A: Oh yeah, always.
Q: After four seasons of gradual improvement, do you feel already at this point in the season you’ve gotten over the hump?
A: You still look at class to class and what the expectations are and hope that winning will breed more winning. There’s a lot of things next year we will have to replace to return to where we are this year. A lot of that’s going to come down to us recognizing what we have to put on the field year-in and year-out.