RAEFORD — Southeastern Conference football coaches and players converged on Bayonet Golf Course at Puppy Creek on Sunday afternoon for the annual meeting with the media, and Scotland was picked to win its sixth straight conference title by a near-unanimous vote.
The Scots garnered all seven of the first-place votes submitted by the media, and four of the six SEC coaches selected Richard Bailey’s team as the preseason favorite.
Richmond and Lumberton each received one first-place vote.
Scotland topped the media poll with seven points, while Richmond was picked to finish second with 15 total points. Pinecrest followed in third place with 22, and Lumberton was fourth with 27. Purnell and Hoke rounded out the schools with 36 and 40 respectively.
In the coaches poll, Scotland topped the standings with nine points while Richmond was the runner-up with 13. Pinecrest stood alone in third place with 21 points, followed closely by Lumberton with 23. Purnell improved to fifth with 29 points and Hoke rounded out the conference with 31.
While being slated — once again — as the top school in the SEC does give Bailey bragging rights, he knows the votes aren’t based on what his team will do, but on what they’ve done in the past.
“The preseason polls are more about tradition and what you’ve done in previous years,” he said. “They don’t know who we have coming back, they just know traditionally we’ve been strong. That really goes to your reputation and what you’ve achieved in the past, but I feel good about where we’re at. I feel like we do have a chance to win the conference championship and obviously that’s the goal every year.”
Scotland won its fifth straight conference title last season, defeating Richmond Senior 28-21 in the winner-take-all regular season finale. The Scots finished 12-1 overall, falling to North Davidson 46-42 in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
The preseason polls had the SEC’s typical top three in Scotland, Richmond and Pinecrest but Bailey feels the conference as a whole has gotten stronger since last season, which will make the chase for the title that much harder.
“Pinecrest the last few years has been moving up,” said Bailey. “I know last year several coaches probably picked Pinecrest second. It’s kinda been us three (Scotland, Richmond, Pinecrest) and then a little bit of separation, but I really feel like Lumberton is coming on strong. I think Purnell has gotten better, Hoke has made some coaching changes and I feel like the conference as a whole will be stronger this year. I think there was a big drop off last year after the first three, but I definitely think the gap is closing.”
Richmond was one game away from winning the SEC in 2015, recording a 4-1 conference mark with an 11-3 overall record. The Raiders fell in the regional semifinals of the 4AA bracket, losing to Page, 49-33. Second year head coach Mike Castellano agreed with Bailey that preseason standings don’t mean much.
“Our goal is to go 1-0 at practice. We don’t even mention the teams we’re going to be playing by name, just by color,” he said. “We don’t care about anybody else. The process to try and become 1-0 each day is a lot more relevant than the end result at the end of the year.”
The Raiders return six starters from last year’s playoff team, which means Castellano is starting from the ground up but he is confident in the talent his young players are showing him thus far.
“We are young, but we have a lot of talented guys. If they can embrace what we’re trying to do the exciting part is if they get it we’ll have them for two, maybe even three years,” Castellano said.
Led by coach Chris Metzger, Pinecrest placed third in the SEC last year at 3-2 and finished 9-2 overall. The Patriots lost to Scotland and Richmond last year; however, an investigation into rules violations resulted in Pinecrest having to forfeit all but one of their victories. As a result of the forfeits the Patriots were ineligible to make the playoffs.
Lumberton improved last season to fourth in the conference after finishing 2-3 and 5-7 overall. Purnell finished in fifth place in the SEC winning just one conference game and sporting a 2-9 overall record.
Hoke County took sixth place after failing to win any games during the 2015 season, 0-11 overall and 0-5 in the SEC. After another disappointing season Hoke hired new head coach David Jorgensen after Tom Paris stepped down. Jorgensen was the Bucks strength and conditioning coach prior to taking the head coaching job.
With the regular season set to begin in a little more than two weeks, those three schools, along with Pinecrest and Richmond, will look to take back a conference crown worn by Scotland for nearly half a decade.
But crowns aren’t worn without the battle scars to prove they were earned. Bailey knows all five conference games are going to challenge his team and he just hopes to make it through healthy enough to play for a state title.
“It’s a battle trying to get through our conference,” he said. “Last year, we got beat up in the Richmond game. We won on the scoreboard but we probably lost at the infirmary. Going into the playoffs it really decimated us, that’s the bad part about having such a tough conference and having a style of play where it’s a physical conference. You want to survive, but you have to step it up every week.”
The Scots will open their 2016 season against South View on Aug. 19.
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.