ROCKINGHAM — Friday night football in September returns to Raider Stadium this week for the first time in two years, and the Richmond Senior High School varsity team understands what’s at stake to earn a win.
After taking control late in last week’s win over Butler at Memorial Stadium, head coach Bryan Till and the No. 2 Raiders will face another highly-ranked team in No. 3 Cardinal Gibbons High School.
Setting the tone as one of the top games across the state in Week 3, Richmond (2-0) will look to avenge a second-round loss to the Crusaders (1-1) who eliminated the Raiders from the 2020 4A East playoffs.
In that meeting at Cardinal Gibbons on April 23, a fast start by the Crusaders resulted in a 28-14 loss for Richmond.
With many Richmond players returning this season, Till said that game still hasn’t been forgotten, fueling what could be an emotionally-charged early-season rematch.
“There are definitely some leftover feelings from last year, but we respect what these guys are able to do on the football field and know that it will be a big challenge,” Till explained.
“If there is anything we have learned about our guys in two games, it’s that they play hard.”
Richmond overcame two deficits against the Bulldogs, scrapping back to score late in the fourth quarter thanks to a Gabe Altman fumble recovery and the shiftiness and grit of senior quarterback Kellan Hood.
Hood is coming off a four-touchdown performance, including three on the ground and the game-winner with 3:43 left. A series of big plays and the way Hood took control of the game caught a lot of attention from around the state.
A week prior, a high-scoring first half against Mount Tabor was kept intact when the Raider defense forced a fumble recovery for a score in the fourth quarter, thwarting a comeback attempt by the Spartans.
The team’s toughness and resiliency is what Till hopes will serve as two intangibles come Friday night.
“I hope we just continue to prove our toughness in tough situations,” Till said of a main goal this week. “I want to see our kids continue to bear down when they have to. I think the key to getting better is making less mental mistakes week in and week out.”
Of continuing a rigorous four-game non-conference stretch to start the season, Till pointed out that the high level of competition is what’s also priming the Raiders for hopeful success in Sandhills Athletic Conference play and in the postseason.
“It just keeps getting tougher, but I think we are learning and hopefully improving every week because of playing such good teams,” Till explained of trying to maintain momentum.
When head coach Steven Wright and the Crusaders visit Raider Stadium, the offense will be guided by junior quarterback Connor Clark. At 6-foot-6, Clark, who captained the offense in the playoff win, is a threat in the pocket who uses his throwing arm to make plays in the spread offense.
Through two games this season, Clark has completed 25-of-46 passes for 517 yards (258.5 yards per game) and seven touchdown passes. Unlike the previous two quarterbacks the Raiders have faced, Clark isn’t as mobile and has -44 yards on the ground on seven carries.
“(Clark) has a big arm,” Till said. “They have a very good h-back in No. 8 (Jake Taylor), who blocks well and he can motion as well and split out to create issues on defense.”
Some of Clark’s favorite targets this season have been Maverick Shotwell (105 receiving yards, two scores) and Trent Orr (104 yards, two TDs), along with Taylor and Donovan Shepard, who both have five receptions. Ian Evans has also hauled in two grabs for touchdowns and 97 receiving yards.
“They also have two good running backs in No. 5 (Blake Raphael) and No. 23 (Shepard), who can both play slot wide receiver as well,” he added. “The outside guys are fast and tough blockers. The o-line works very well together and is completely in sync on every play.”
Raphael (70 yards on 20 carries) and Luke Stokes (eight attempts, 58 yards) each have one rushing score to start the season. Joey Jonske has a rushing score on 75 yards and six rushes, while Shepard has added 23 yards on eight carries.
A hard-hitting Crusaders’ defense that has collected 21 tackles for loss in two games this season is led by junior defensive tackle Joshua Stoneking. Through two games, he leads the team with 12 tackles, including a team-best seven drops for a loss.
Also with double-digit tackles is linebacker Carter Scearce with 10 tackles (3.5 TFL), and defensive end Ethan Grace has put the pressure on opposing offenses with five tackles for lost yardage.
Stoneking, Scearce and Pierce Johnston have each recorded a half of a sack this season. Till also said Richmond is preparing for senior linebacker Will Mason, who he called a “stud who can cover and come down hill and hit you in the mouth.”
“All 11 players run to the ball every play and they have very good team speed at every position,” he added of the Cardinal Gibbons defense.
The Crusaders opened their season with a 35-29 loss to No. 1 ranked Julius Chambers High School, and followed that with a Week 2 win over unranked Green Level, 63-0.
Not to be outdone, the Raiders have also impressed in the early going, starting with Hood under center.
Through two wins, Hood has completed 15 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns, and has been a force on the ground, leading the team with 273 rushing yards on 36 carries and a team-best four rushing scores.
Senior tailback Nasir Crumpton is second on the team with 120 rushing yards on eight carries, including a 70-yard score against Butler. Juniors Taye Spencer (101 yards, 23 carries) and Brandon Askins (46 yards, nine attempts) will add to the rushing attack.
Senior linebacker Mikey Baldwin leads the Raiders with 17 total tackles, and has added three tackles for a loss and two sacks. Junior safety Emerson Wall has 12 tackles and senior cornerback Jaleak Gates is averaging five tackles a game.
Senior defensive end J.D. Lampley has nine tackles, five of which have blistered opposing players for a loss of yardage. Often beating double-team blocking, Lampley has six quarterback hurries in two games, the highest of any Raider defender.
“Please show up and show out for our guys,” Till closed with a message to fans. “Raider Stadium is a special place and we need our entire community there for support on Friday.”
Kickoff between the Raiders and Crusaders is set for 7:30 p.m. under the blinking MUSCO LED lights of Raider Stadium.
Sports contributor Deon Cranford will be covering the game for The Richmond Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @DeonCranford for updates.