LUMBERTON — There is a lot of excitement this season heading into the Southeastern Conference football season and the race for a champion could be the tightest it’s been in years.
“The gap between the top and bottom has probably gotten closer the last couple of years,” Scotland coach Richard Baily said. “It’s a difficult league and one loss can cost you the conference championship.”
“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.”
While the league had a split look in last year’s standings, with Scotland, Pinecrest and Richmond earning the title of best in the league, this season has Brigman confident all six schools will compete this year.
“Football-wise it’s always strong,” Brigman said. “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.”
Scotland, as has been the case for the past few seasons, is once again the favorite to win the conference, and for coach Richard Bailey, that is a place he prefers over the alternative.
“I’d rather be one of those teams than one of the other teams,” said Bailey. “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.”
The Scots are coming off of a year that saw them go undefeated in the regular season before losing to Dudley in the state championship game. With the loss of 23 seniors from that team and the loss of quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe to an offseason ATV injury, it is seemingly tougher for them to return to championship form.
Bailey isn’t using it as an excuse.
“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.”
There are a pair of teams from last year that will really be looking to overtake the Scots after successful campaigns last year, with Richmond and Pinecrest both hoping to throw their names into the hat for conference champion.
Richmond coach Paul Hoggard said they are replacing quite a few players and will be running a sophomore quarterback out to lead their offense. Hoggard told Moore Sports Radio that they are expecting a tough fight in the conference.
“I’m sure it’s going to be good from top to bottom,” he said in a video interview. “It always is and it will be a fight from start to finish.”
Pinecrest’s second-place finish last season took quite a few teams by surprise and coach Chris Metzger says he know they are no longer the underdogs.
“The kids know they’re not going to sneak up on anybody and we’re taking it one game at a time,” he said. “The kids have done a great job. There’s been a lot of competition.”
At Hoke County, coach Tom Paris said they will be looking to push their competition on the field with a faster pace.
“We want to be up tempo as much as possible and certainly in order to do that against the level of competition we have to play, you have to be in good condition to do that,” Paris said in an interview with Moore Sports Radio.
Paris said his team will be a run first spread offense, and he is hoping they will be able to dictate when they throw the ball, and not the other way around.
Brigman said nearly any team is capable of contending for the championship.
“That’s what we look for,” he said. “Everyone is a rival, and that’s the way it should be.”