LAURINBURG — After five trips to the state championship, Scotland head coach Richard Bailey and the big stage are no longer strangers, they’re more like old friends.
Bailey coached Jack Britt to three state championship appearances during his tenure before leading the Fighting Scots to the dance in 2013.
All four times Bailey has been the runner-up, but the 27-year veteran said this fifth time just feels different. Bailey said this Fighting Scots team is special and this could be the year he finally hoists the championship trophy into the air.
“You feel if like you keep getting here and eventually God is going to shine on you and you’ll be lucky enough to win one of these,” he said. “It would make my career complete to win a state championship. This is the best offense I’ve ever coached. The biggest thing is our offensive line and our ability to move the ball.”
This season, the Fighting Scots have tallied 6,501 yards of total offense — 5,499 on the ground and 1,002 in the passing game. Senior tailback Zamir White leads the team with 144 carries for 2,062 yards and 34 touchdowns. White’s high school career came to an end two weeks ago in the third round of the playoffs when he torn his ACL.
The University of Georgia commit has since had surgery to repair the tear and Bailey is hopeful he will feel well enough to come support his teammates on Saturday.
Despite losing White, the Scots offense hasn’t declined in their production scoring 74 points against South Central and 47 against Wilmington Hoggard. Leading the run game in White’s absence are senior quarterback Warren Bell and junior tailback Syheam “Smiley” McQueen.
Bell had 196 carries for 1,983 yards and 25 touchdowns while McQueen, after returning from a early season shoulder injury, has 100 carries for 761 yards and nine touchdowns.
Bailey said that losing White was an emotional blow to the team, but the fact that his offense continues to perform at a high level speaks volumes about the program and culture at Scotland.
“We have great offensive linemen, quarterback, we’re one of the few schools that can lose a running back and have another DI guy take his place. To say we’re somehow better without him is crazy — we’re not.,” Bailey said. “We would love to have him, and I would feel a lot better about our chances if we had him, but I think it does speak volumes about our program and our kids. We haven’t really had a drop off since he’s been gone.”
The other major factor that Bailey thinks has helped his team succeed his the games they’ve lost. In 2016, the Fighting Scots lost to Cape Fear in the 4A Eastern Regional Finals to end their season. The Scots opened the 2017 season with a loss to 4AA state championship finalist Mallard Creek.
“Losing to Cape Fear last year motivated us in the off season, to be so close and come up short in a disappointing loss,” he said. “I think the kids in the off season did whatever it took to get us to the state championship game. The last few years our only loss has been our last one and I think (losing to Mallard Creek ) helped us to see where we were still deficient at and understand we weren’t invincible and we better come to play every Friday.”
Mallard Creek is the only loss on both Scotland and Harding’s schedules — Scotland lost to the Mavericks, 28-21 and Harding lost 30-9.
Bailey admitted he doesn’t know much about Harding, other than they are a tough, physical opponent that like the Fighting Scots prefers to run the ball.
“We are very similar in how we go about playing, especially offensively,” Bailey said. “We haven’t faced many teams that are run oriented and not ones that run a version of the Wing-T. On defense, we’re a 3-4 team and so are they. If I had to compare them to anyone it would be us, but we haven’t played anyone that’s like them this year.”
Harding under the direction of head coach Samuel Greiner went from being a one-win team to playing for a state championship in three years. This is the first time Harding has played in the state championship in 30 years. The team played Garner in 1987 and lost that 4A title, 40-21.
The Rams features the No. 1 running back for the Class of 2019 in junior Quavaris Crouch, No. 27, who is 6-foot-1-inch and weighs 220 pounds. Crouch set a new school single-game rushing this season carrying the ball for 350 yards. The Rams offense is led by quarterback Braheam Murphy, No. 1, 5-feet-10-inches weighs 160 pounds, has committed to play for Army.
Bailey is also worried about being outsized by the Rams offensive and defensive lines. Harding features Shrine Bowl tackle Jovaughn Gwyn, No. 75, who is 6-feet-3-inches tall and weighs 290 pounds. Gwyn is flanked by Sadario Simpson, No. 73, 6-feet-3-inches weighs 315 pounds.
On the defensive line, Harding has two defensive tackles — Justin Blue and Latrevyon Davidson — both listed at 400 pounds.
“We aren’t used to seeing that much size — not since Mallard Creek,” he said. “They have a couple of kids listed at 400 pounds playing on their defensive line, so a very physical team and hard to move the ball on. When you have a running back like they have and some linemen doing some blocking they are really good.”
Facing a formidable opponent, Bailey thinks they key to winning his first state championship will be turnovers and special teams play.
“We have to take care of ball and find a way to run the football because that’s what we do,” he said. “If we have difficulty running the ball both teams are going to struggle. So whichever team can run the ball most effectively, not have turnovers and make some kick plays on special teams impact state championship games more than anything.”
The Fighting Scots and Harding will kick off the 4A state championship on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. at BB&T field on the campus of Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Tickets are $9 in advance and can be purchased online at www.gofan.co, but there is a $1.38 convenience fee or purchased at the gate on Saturday for $10. Fans should also note that parking will be $10.
Items that are prohibited at BB&T Field include: outside food or drinks, umbrellas, weapons, signs on poles, noisemakers, such as cow bells, milk jugs, air horns, car seats, tripods and metal or hard plastic frame chairs. Fans are allowed to bring blankets and stadium cushions.
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.