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When James Ward was hired as the head football coach at Beddingfield High in December 2016, he immediately set about a rebranding of the program.
The Bruins took the field in 2017 wearing jerseys that were proudly emblazoned with across the front, “The Field.” Ward wanted his players and coaches, as well as the school and the community, to have the same pride he did in his alma mater. A former Bruins player and a 1995 Beddingfield graduate, Ward joined the staff of then head coach Tyrone Johnson, for whom he played from 1991 to 1994, while still a student at East Carolina University. He was an unpaid assistant coach until he was hired by then principal Bob Pope as a physical education teacher and football assistant coach and later the track and field coach.
If anybody understands Beddingfield, it’s James Ward and he steadfastly believed that he would there until he retired or “die on the field” as he proclaimed after being hired 30 months ago.
All that changed Monday when Ward was announced as the new head coach at Wakefield High in Raleigh — “The Field” reimagined.
But don’t think that Ward gave up on Beddingfield. After all, he led the Bruins to a 17-8 record, a share of the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference title in 2017 and playoff wins in both of his seasons at the helm. He, along with fellow track coach Joe Dvozenja, produced conference championship teams and regional and state qualifiers nearly every year.
No, James Ward didn’t give up on Beddingfield. The Wilson County Board of Education and Wilson County Schools have seemingly given up on Beddingfield and Ward just saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall.
Beddingfield’s enrollment has dwindled in fairly steady fashion over the last 15 years. It went from a 3-A program in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association ranks to 2-A starting with the 2009-10 school year. Since then, Beddingfield’s average daily membership, or ADM, number that is used by the NCHSAA to calculate enrollment, has continued to shrink. Yet there have been no real attempts by the school board to redraw school district lines to accommodate for the shift of population centers in Wilson and Wilson County, which have caused Hunt and Fike enrollment to swell.
Further hampering Beddingfield’s ability to field teams was the decision of the school board to prohibit students at Wilson Academy of Applied Technology to participate in athletics at Beddingfield. Previously, students at WAAT, a separate school housed at Beddingfield, were allowed to play on Beddingfield’s teams. However, due to WAAT’s hours aligning with those of Wilson Community College, which holds classes for WAAT students, there was no way students could participate in afternoon practices or games. So the school board decided to make a uniform policy and end all athletic participation for WAAT students, costing Beddingfield a good number of student-athletes.
Ward estimated that the new rule cost his football team as many 13 players, which led to his decision to not have a junior varsity football team. That was a first in Beddingfield’s 41 years and possibly the first time a Wilson high school did not field a J.V. football team. In fact, Beddingfield only had three J.V. teams this school year — boys soccer, boys basketball and volleyball.
“Look at track this year,” Ward said. “Normally we have 60, 70 students and this year we had 22 girls and guys combined. This was my first year not having a relay in the state championships.”
Sports that were once traditional mainstays at Beddingfield — baseball and softball — both struggled to have enough for just a varsity roster this spring.
Ward said that some of the problem stems from players eschewing high school sports for travel teams.
“It’s bigger than just Beddingfield,” he said. “We’ve got these guys out here trying to drive these kids into AAU basketball. That’s never going to take them out of Wilson. That’s never going to be a tool to get them an education.”
Across the board, participation in athletics is down at Beddingfield for a number of reasons, but the overall drop in enrollment and decision to prohibit WAAT students from playing sports loom as the most compelling.
Why? Because those can be fixed by the school board. There’s no reason why one high school in Wilson County should have almost half as many students as another. And the decision to not allow WAAT students to participate in athletics might benefit someone but it certainly doesn’t benefit the students.
Perhaps the school board has a plan for Beddingfield. Perhaps it hasn’t given up on the school and we will see a turnaround in enrollment and participation. But it better happen soon because if James Ward leaving Beddingfield isn’t the proverbial canary in the coal mine, I don’t know what is.