LAURINBURG — As Scotland coach Richard Bailey told his players in the post-game huddle after last week’s 49-13 win against Panther Creek in Cary, the preseason is over.
Now, the urgency level is raised several notches.
And while non-conference games are vital to a team’s growth as forms its identity during the early part of the year, the conference season is when the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders.
Through six weeks of the North Carolina high school football season, the Southeastern Conference appears to have three legitimate contenders for the conference crown — Scotland, Pinecrest and Richmond Senior.
The trio of programs wield a combined 17-1 record, with the Raiders taking the lone loss in a 32-13 defeat to Butler on Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, the bottom of the SEC has been nothing short of disappointing. Lumberton is the only other team at or above .500, as the Pirates are currently 3-3 after winning their last two games. Purnell Swett is 1-5 with its win coming against county rival South Robeson, a 1A school that is still winless this season. Hoke is the only school in the conference with a goose egg in the win column — the Bucks are 0-6 after falling 35-14 to Rocky Mount in their previous contest.
All six SEC programs are off this week as they enjoy a bye before conference play kicks off next Friday. With the non-conference season in the books, it’s time to examine four pressing questions and growing trends in the SEC before the teams return to the gridiron.
The obvious question — will Scotland win its fifth straight SEC championship?
The Scots’ quest for another conference title begins next Friday at Purnell Swett and ends Nov. 6 in Pate Stadium against rival Richmond.
Bailey’s program was the overwhelming preseason favorite to capture the SEC crown as the media unanimously picked the Scots to win their fifth championship in a row dating back to Chip Williams’ final season patrolling the sidelines.
Scotland (6-0) flashed a few moments of vulnerability during stretches of its non-conference schedule, but in its past two games the Scots have outscored New Hanover and Panther Creek by a combined 97-41. Before that, Bailey was concerned with bouts of sloppiness displayed by his offense which only scored 35 combined points against Marlboro County and Jack Britt.
The Scots survived a slew of early-season injuries which claimed the likes of starting quarterback Dashaun Ferguson, receiver Willie Douglas, and several players in the secondary. Ferguson in particular has boosted the Scots’ passing game since his return — he’s thrown five touchdown passes in three contests and is coming off his “best game of the year” according to Bailey.
Running back Zamir White, the odds-on favorite to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year, has already rushed for 22 touchdowns this season and is the straw the stirs the Scots’ offensive drink. The defense, led by University of North Carolina commit Jonathan Smith, has improved each week and has already bailed the Scotland offense out in a couple of games.
If Scotland is on its ‘A’ game, SEC schools will be hard-pressed to defeat the four-time defending champion. If a team like Pinecrest or Richmond can muck up a game and turn it into a low-scoring affair like Marlboro and Jack Britt were able to do, then there is a chance the SEC trophy may no longer reside in Laurinburg by season’s end.
Can Pinecrest finally break through with a conference championship?
Another question that’s been routinely brought up before the start of the SEC play the past few years — will the Patriots finally dethrone the Scots and Raiders?
Pinecrest (6-0) has knocked at the doorstep the last two seasons, but are a combined 1-3 against Scotland and Richmond during that period. But, if there’s ever a time for the Patriots to finally get over the hump, it’s this year.
Pinecrest fields a senior-laden team helmed by all-SEC quarterback Christian Ledbetter. Ledbetter has thrown for 707 and seven touchdowns this year while gaining 442 yards and 14 scores on the ground. The Patriots are averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game and have scored 50 or more points three times.
The defense returned almost every starter from last year’s team and outside of a 42-point explosion by Virginia’s Woodberry Forest in Week 5, the Patriots have largely kept its opponents off the scoreboard.
Pinecrest’s non-conference schedule featured a few stellar opponents like the Tigers and Cuthbertson, but the Patriots still face some questions given the combined record of their opposition thus far is 15-18.
Pinecrest certainly has all the necessary tools to snag the SEC title out of the Scots’ grasp. After all, the Patriots nearly defeated Scotland last year in Southern Pines before a touchdown by Zamir White in the waning seconds spoiled the upset bid. This year, it’s a matter of if Pinecrest can finish the job.
Is Richmond’s defensive improvement enough to keep it in title contention?
How the Raiders’ offense would look under new coach Mike Castellano was a much-discussed preseason topic, but it’s been Richmond’s defense that has stolen the headlines as the season reaches its halfway mark.
Richmond’s offense, which was a run-based attack for years under former coach Paul Hoggard, has experienced its fair share of growing pains as it has transitioned to a more pass-happy philosophy with Castellano at the helm.
On defense, the Raiders (5-1) have only allowed 21 or more points one time this season. That occurred in the loss to Butler where Richmond’s offense turned the ball over a number of times in enemy territory and did its defense little, if any, favors.
Two Richmond playmakers in particular are making life difficult for opposing offenses — linebacker Devon Hunt and Jaelin Beugre.
Hunt, a senior, is in the midst of an all-SEC-caliber campaign with 59 tackles, 12 of which have gone for a loss. He also has four fumble recoveries and a sack on his résumé.
Beugre, another senior, made the game-clinching interception in the Raiders’ 14-12 win against Dudley Monday to increase his season total to two. The 190-pounder has already blocked three punts and recovered a trio of fumbles as well.
Offense has been the name of the game in Rockingham in recent years, but there’s been a rather dramatic shift in that dynamic this season. The Raiders’ defense as held them back before, but that has been far from the case under the new regime. Question is, is it good enough to hold down the talented offenses of Scotland and Pinecrest? Folks in Richmond County sure hope so given the way the unit has fared against non-conference competition.
Will the rest of the SEC please stand up?
Unless something changes in a major way the next month, the bottom tier of the conference is likely out of the SEC race before it even begins. Lumberton, Purnell Swett and Hoke have a combined record of 4-14 and all three schools experienced struggles during the non-conference schedule.
The Pirates have at least contended in most of their games, with only one outlier — a 71-21 drubbing at the hands of Seventy-First.
A common theme that has emerged this season is Lumberton falls behind early in many of its games before storming back in the second half. Against the likes of Scotland, Pinecrest and Richmond, that strategy just isn’t going to cut it.
On the other side of Robeson County, Purnell Swett and first-year coach Jon Sherman are trudging through a dismal 1-5 campaign. As expected with any coaching change the Rams are still adapting to life without Mark Heil, who resigned last offseason.
The Rams did show signs of life in their most recent game against New Hanover, coming back from a halftime deficit to nearly take the lead before falling 30-20. Purnell Swett can build on the experiences from that loss and carry it into conference play, where a battle for fourth place is the likely ceiling for these trio of teams.
Hoke has been the most disappointing team in the SEC thus far after failing to win any of its first six games. None have been particularly close as the Bucks have lost by 12 or more points in each contest, including a 63-6 loss to Jack Britt in Week 2.
Hoke was expected to make strides in its second season under coach Tom Paris, but instead the program has taken multiple steps backward. The one bright spot for the Bucks is running back Jacob Rushing, who appears on his way to earning all-SEC honors after racking up 893 yards and eight touchdowns so far this year.
Last season Lumberton, Purnell Swett and Hoke all finished 1-4 in conference play with wins coming against one another. Barring a late-season surge by any of these programs, two SEC victories is the best-case scenario for each.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.