PRINCETON – At first glance, bitter rivals Rosewood and Princeton appear to have plenty in common.
Separated by just seven miles, both schools are nestled in small, tight-knit communities in eastern North Carolina, and are supported by loyal and passionate fan bases. Since the start of the 2018 season, the Eagles and Bulldogs have been among the most consistent programs in eastern North Carolina, combining to go 93-22 with three collective trips to the NCHSAA state semifinals.
Rosewood and Princeton renew their rivalry at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Fred Bartholomew Athletic Complex. The game was originally scheduled for Thursday evening but was postponed due to Tropical Storm Idalia. Friday night’s game can be heard locally on FM 98.3 WGBR, or online at Goldsborodailynews.com, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Dig a little deeper, and these two former Carolina 1-A Conference rivals have their fair share of differences. Princeton head coach Travis Gaster is in his ninth season, while Rosewood’s Josh Smith is in his first year of what he’s called his “dream job.”
Gaster and the Bulldogs are off to a 2-0 start this season, marking the sixth consecutive season they’ve won their first two ballgames.
Smith a former quarterback for the Eagles and a 2000 Rosewood graduate, has taken over for longtime head coach Robert Britt, who stepped down last December. Smith spent the past 10 seasons as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator.
Rosewood has started the season 0-2 for the first time since 2016, and turnovers have been a reoccurring theme the first two weeks. The Eagles have turned the ball over eight times, including six lost fumbles. Rosewood fumbled the ball away three times in their loss at county rival C.B. Aycock in week one.
“We’ve got to take care of the football,” Smith said. “I think when you commit eight turnovers in two games, you’re not really giving yourself an opportunity to be where you want to be. Against North Johnston, we turned the ball over inside the 5-yard line, which was big. We had a similar situation at Aycock, where we were driving and we threw an interception. This week we talked a lot about taking care of the football and putting ourselves in the best situation to be successful.”
Turnovers have played a prominent role in Princeton’s first two games, but it’s been the Bulldogs forcing the takeaways. Princeton has four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
“We’ve tackled better this year than we have in the past,” Gaster said. “Our box has been our bright spot and it should be, that’s where we’ve got the most experience. We’re still working on our defensive backs, and that’s going to be a challenge, because we can’t show our defensive backs what they’re going to see on Friday night any time we face a spread offense. With our offense, we just don’t have the folks that are used to running around and running great routes. Our defensive backs have given up some big plays, but they’ve also made some big plays as well.”
Offensively, Princeton has been tasked with replacing a wealth of talent that was lost to graduation over the last two seasons. Gone are Jaydon Brooks, Christian Perris, Paul Edens, Peyton Mitchell and Brandon Turner, who led a vaunted Bulldogs’ rushing attack.
Kayden Haire has become Princeton’s go-to back with 289 yards rushing and four touchdowns, while averaging nine yards per carry. Austin Lewallen has contributed 155 yards rushing and three scores.
“Kayden has great speed,” Gaster said. “We’re working on him seeing and having vision in our offense, obviously it’s a little different than what most folks are used to seeing. Understanding where his open spots should be, and where they are as the defense is adjusting and just kind of teaching the intricacies of the offense, and he’s been very receptive to that.”
Rosewood’s rebuilt offensive line continues to search for cohesion in front of junior quarterback Gio Pineda, a transfer from Spring Creek. The Eagles allowed seven tackles for loss in week one at C.B. Aycock, and are averaging just 12.5 points per game.
“I think we’re still trying to find our identity,” Smith said. “With only returning one starter on the offensive line, it’s kind of been a puzzle piece for us to find who fits best where. I feel like those guys are working really, really hard. Their lack of varsity experience has kind of shown the last two weeks, but they’re getting better. As long as we continue to move forward things are going to fit, so when conference play comes, we’re going to have everything going in the right direction.”
Rosewood and Princeton first met in football in 1971. The Eagles lead the all-time series 43-22, but the Bulldogs have won nine of the last ten meetings including a 45-32 victory last season. Rosewood’s last win in the series came in 2019. Friday marks just the third time the Eagles and Bulldogs have met as non-conference opponents.