RAEFORD — Despite what has been a tumultuous offseason, there is no doubt about who the Southeastern Conference coaches think is the best team in the league.
In a coaches poll taken at the conference’s annual media day on Sunday, Scotland High School received five of the six first place votes, placing expectation to finish first squarely on their backs.
“I’d rather be one of those teams than one of the other teams,” Scotland coach Richard Bailey said. “Expectations are a good thing. I tell our kids to prepare in the offseason knowing that there is always going to be a target on their backs.”
Bailey said he knows after an injury to senior quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe that the road for the Scots became much harder, but that only changes the way they will go about achieving their goals.
“Our expectations don’t change,” he said. “We just are going to have to find a way, and we may have to do it a little differently. We may have to spread the ball around a little more than we did last year, we may have to play in manner to help our defense, but the bottom line is your still winning by the same margin, it’s just a different way of doing it.”
They will also be having to do it in one of the tougher conferences in North Carolina.
“A few years ago, we had all six of our schools qualify for the playoffs,” said conference president Gary Brigman. “That just shows you the caliber of teams we have, the quality of football.”
Bailey said the quality of the conference has improved in the past few years.
“The gap between the top and bottom has probably gotten closer the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s a difficult league and one loss can cost you the conference championship.”
“Football wise it’s always strong,” said Brigman. “We get in there at the very beginning and there’s just no telling who’s going to win. Last year, Scotland was head and tails above everybody, but it’s a dogfight for that second spot.”
Brigman said there are a lot of teams to look at this year that could contend for the championship, and it was hard to narrow it down to just one.
“Everyone seems to think that Scotland is going to be really strong,” he said. “Pinecrest has come through with some really good freshmen teams and and really good JV teams, so I think Pinecrest is going to contend, and every year, Richmond County is going to be in the mix of things, and you cannot throw out what Lumberton is doing.”
Brigman also said Purnell Swett and Hoke County will be difficult to count out as well.
For Purnell Swett coach Mark Heil, there are still questions about how competitive they will be, but he does know they will be improved from the past few seasons.
“We have so many untested kids,” Heil said. “I think that we are going to be better, it just depends on how much the kids that played last year improved.”
Heil said the team had some issues in winning games in the fourth quarter, but they are working on playing a more physical style of football this season, and if they get to the fourth quarter, he doesn’t feel they will have the same issues.
That isn’t saying he doesn’t know who they are looking up at.
“Scotland and Richmond are always the teams to beat in our conference,” he said, adding that Pinecrest has also made great strides in the past few seasons.
Expectations are high for Lumberton coming from new coach Mike Setzer.
“I believe we can compete with every team in the conference,” he said.
This is coming on the tails of an offseason where the Pirates had an almost complete overhaul in their coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Garron Warwick said the school has done a great job of filling in the holes.
“The coaches that left were all good guys, and all left for promotions as coaches,” he said. “They did what they had to and we replaced all of them with good guys.
“Principal Larry Obeda really did a lot to help put the staff together. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
The new coaching staff will also mean a new look. The team is switching from an air raid offense to a more spread offense this season, and the defense is moving to more of a 4-2-5 look, something Warwick said will make them more flexible.
“The players have bought into the new systems this year quick,” said Warwick. “They have worked hard.”
The 2014 season is shaping up to be a competitive year, and that is something that excites Brigman.
“That’s what we look for,” he said. “Everyone is a rival, and that’s the way it should be.”