ROCKINGHAM — The first high school football games in November look the same for all playoff teams across the state — a clean slate with the goal of trying to go 1-0 and advance.
That’s been the message around the Richmond Senior High School locker room and practice field this week as the Raiders and head coach Bryan Till have spent time preparing for the opening round of the NCHSAA 4A East postseason.
Tabbed the No. 25 team in their bracket, the Raiders will play their first opening round playoff game on the road since 2013.
They will travel to No. 8 Holly Springs High School, a team Richmond last played during the 2015 4AA playoff opener. That game resulted in a 28-3 victory for the Raiders.
While making the playoffs is an annual expectation for Richmond, the march toward the program’s hopeful eighth state championship will see an early road test.
Till, who has a 5-5 playoff record since taking over at Richmond in 2017, said the team isn’t treating the playoff opener on the road any differently than any other business trip.
“It will be the same as a regular season road trip as far as our prep,” Till said. “The big thing is it would be great to have big fan support. We are known for our community across the state and I see it as a chance to continue the tradition of support we have always enjoyed.”
Despite being a fellow 4A program located in Wake County, Richmond hasn’t played the Golden Hawks as frequently as one might think. The only other time the two schools have played each other was in the 2015 game.
With all playoff games, there’s some unfamiliarity, but the unknowns surrounding Holly Springs required the Richmond coaching staff to do a little more digging to prepare the team for Friday.
Till said extra time was spent in the film room to get a read on coach Robert Furth’s Golden Hawks, beginning on Saturday when the playoff brackets were released.
“It impacts the coaches mostly,” Till explained of planning for an unfamiliar team. “We have had to talk to numerous guys around the state to get an idea of who Holly Springs is and what they like to do. We have had to watch that much more film to continue to understand why they do what they do.
“You have to remember you also don’t know their opponents well, so we ask the question ‘are they doing this because of who they are or who they are playing’,” he added. “When it comes to (our) players, they have to be fired up about another chance to play football and have to respect the pressure to win or go home.”
Respect may come in the form of Holly Springs’ record this season, which was 8-2 overall and included an eight-game winning streak during the heart of the season.
The Golden Hawks also tallied a 6-1 record in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, earning a share of the conference championship with Panther Creek and Apex high schools.
“(Holly Springs) has been very consistent as a winner in the last six years since I have been here,” Till noted. “They are known to play very good defense year in and year out. They are in an area of very high growth with a lot of other Wake County schools.”
Both Richmond (5-5, 4-2 Sandhills Athletic Conference) and Holly Springs are coming off a regular-season finale loss to Scotland and Panther Creek, respectively. With both programs looking to hit the reset button and forge a path into the second round, Friday’s contest carries a little extra weight for the Raiders.
Not letting the seeding numbers dictate which is the better team leading up to kickoff, the Raiders will face a Golden Hawks offense that has averaged 30.4 points per game and a defense that has limited opponents to just 17.8 points per contest.
In comparison, Richmond is netting 23.7 points per game this fall, while allowing 27.4 points a night on defense.
Captaining the offense for Holly Springs is junior quarterback Joel Sheehan, who has passed for 1,828 yards this season, which ranks him the 17th top passer in the 4A classification.
Completing 126-of-185 through the air, Sheehan has connected for 18 passing scores and just five interceptions. Sheehan tosses for 182.2 yards per game and has averaged just under two scores per four quarters.
Out of the backfield, a duo of junior tailbacks in Breadan King (62 carries, 606 yards, 8 touchdowns) and Jordon Gillis (62 touches, 327 yards, 5 TDs) account for much of the running game.
Senior William Picquet has added 4 rushing scores to an offense that averages 139.4 yards per game.
Helping in the receiving game are senior Addison Carlson (32 catches, 424 yards, 7 TDs), junior Matthew Bland (20 catches, 343 yards, 5 TDs) and junior Drake Della Ratta (16 grabs, 294 yards, 2 scores).
“Their QB has thrown for almost 2,000 yards and he knows how to pick apart a defense and their wide receivers get open well,” Till said. “They use three different tailbacks who are all good at running the ball and getting into pass routes.
On the other side of the line, Richmond’s offense will contend with a multiple-look defense that can line up in several different coverages with the same personnel. A couple of ballhawks include senior linebacker Chase Christopher and defensive back Owen Carlson.
Christopher has amassed a team-leading 138 total tackles this season (77 solo), which is 72 tackles more than his next closest teammate Chandler McCall (66 tackles). A Princeton University commit, Christopher is the top tackler in 4A play and his 9 sacks put him in the top 15 spots.
Deeper in the secondary, Owen Carlson also leads the 4A classification with 8 interceptions. He’s had two two-interception games and has made a pick in six different games. Carlson has also recovered one fumble and defended 10 passes, to go along with his 37 tackles.
Safety Brett King has recorded 5 sacks this season and linebacker Maddox Moore has recovered three fumbles and picked two passes.
“The defense will give you a lot of different looks up front,” Till said. “They are led by a linebacker (Christopher) who is committed to Princeton and he plays like a guy who is an Ivy League player. No matter what they are in, they are sound fundamentally and run to the ball.”