Tickets have become scarce, and the energy in the air is familiar to anyone who dedicates their Friday nights to local high school football.
The Scotland vs. Richmond game is finally here, and the hype surrounding it has reached a fever pitch in the surrounding communities.
Yet, despite the magnitude of the Southeastern Conference-deciding clash between the Raiders and Fighting Scots, you’ll be hard-pressed to find Scotland’s players treating the contest as anything more than simply a game.
“We are keeping our focus on the fact that it’s another game on our schedule,” said Scotland senior linebacker Chris Moss, who is second on the Fighting Scots in total tackles with 94 on the season.
“This team has been practicing and preparing like we have for every game this season, and now it’s about everybody sticking to the roles they’ve been given. If we do what we’re supposed to do the big plays will come,” he said.
“I have to stay in my zone and not worry about the atmosphere,” said Scotland running back Josh McPhatter. With 326 rushing yards, seven touchdowns and the highest yards-per-carry on the team with a minimum of 20 attempts (7.41), McPhatter has established himself as one of Scotland’s premiere big-play threats.
Scotland coach Richard Bailey has preached the “just another game” mantra to his squad all season, but he himself is no stranger to the big game atmosphere. His prior coaching stint at Jack Britt yielded three different 4AA state championship opportunities, including a 38-35 loss to Richmond in 2008. Bailey has roamed the sidelines in stadiums lined with thousands of people, recalling a 2004 playoff game against the Davie War Eagles that drew an estimated 10,000 fans.
Bailey has even attended the Scotland/Richmond rivalry game on two separate occasions as a spectator. But now his moment as the leader of the Fighting Scots is here, and he couldn’t be more excited about the implications.
“This game is one of the biggest reasons I came to Scotland,” Bailey said. “I tell my guys that you play and coach this game for moments like this, not for the blowout wins against lesser teams in front a few hundred people. I anticipate it’ll be like nothing I’ve ever seen, but at the same time our schedule has prepared us for this game and these kids won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.”
While Bailey and the Fighting Scots don’t pride themselves on entertaining the latest polls and rankings, it’s tough to ignore that Scotland has endured one of the tougher schedules in the state. Most notably, the grueling three-game stretch that saw the Scots battle New Hanover (their only loss of the season), Marlboro County and Jack Britt in consecutive games.
This early-season stretch was a legitimate gut check for a Scotland squad largely comprised of talented seniors that were given the first varsity starting nods of their high school careers. The Scots went 2-1 over that stretch of games, and Scotland offensive coordinator Will Clark points to that early gauntlet as a precursor to the wins the team has gained up until this point.
“That early success definitely carried over to our success late in the season,” Clark said. “It’s a testament to their work ethic and will to win that they came together as a team to get through those games. They’ve paid the price, and now it’s time for them to enjoy the moment and be recognized for their hard work.”
Though they have remained unbeaten throughout the season, the Raiders have struggled the past two weeks against conference rivals Lumberton and Pinecrest, and have also battled injuries as well. Their option-based offensive attack will be without Elijah Goodwin, the third-leading rusher on the team with nearly 500 yards and seven touchdowns on his 2012 resume. He will be out of Friday night’s game with a concussion.
But the team’s leading rusher Diquon Cox (who has compiled 859 yards on the ground as well as 11 rushing touchdowns) will be on the field, and Bailey believes that Richmond will be firing on all cylinders Friday night.
“Everyone seems to get healthy this week no matter the injury,” Bailey said. “They’re a fast, physical team with several division-1 college prospects on both sides of the ball, and they are well-coached in all facets of the game. I don’t expect anything less than the best from them.”
The history, bad blood and outside distractions aside, the Fighting Scots and Raiders are two teams with the bigger picture firmly in mind. Though state playoff matchups haven’t been decided upon as of yet, it appears that Richmond will once again compete in the 4AA bracket while Scotland will travel the smaller 4A path no matter Friday’s outcome.
What does hinge on Friday night’s game is playoff seeding. With a win against the Raiders, Scotland becomes a virtual lock for a number one or two seed in the state 4A playoffs, which would guarantee at least two playoff games hosted at Pate Stadium.
And though playoff destiny undoubtedly hangs in the balance, Scotland senior lineman Martin Locklear has seen it all before. Along with outside linebacker Artemis Robinson, Locklear is the only current player to have experienced a Scotland/Richmond rivalry game as a member of the starting varsity roster.
His message to teammates? It’s just another game in the end.
“It’s definitely intense and a little nerve-wracking at first,” Locklear said. “But as long we do what we’re coached to do and everyone does their job, we can win this game.”