ROCKINGHAM – There have been a lot of really good firsts this season for the Richmond Senior High School varsity football team.
First-year head coach Bryan Till made his debut against Ronald Reagan High School on August 18 and won his first game at the helm of the Raiders program. True freshman quarterback Caleb Hood had a phenomenal first season under center, as he threw for 2,164 yards and 17 touchdowns.
And for the first time since 2013, senior running back Dante Miller became the first Richmond player to rush for more than 1,350 yards in a season (Miller accumulated 1,397 yards on 174 carries).
But the No. 8-seeded Raiders’ season came to a heartbreaking end Friday night in a 27-24 loss to No. 9 North Mecklenburg High School in the first round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s 4AA state playoffs. It was the first time since 2011 that the Raiders were eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round (28-14 loss to Northwest Guilford High School).
In a game that tested each team’s grit and ability to overcome adversity, Richmond (7-5) let a late 23-20 fourth-quarter lead slip away and failed to mount a final-drive comeback to move onto the second round at Mallard Creek High School next week.
Despite turning the ball over three times in the first half, Richmond managed to lock things down defensively and only allowed the Vikings (9-3) to head into the locker room with a 7-3 halftime lead. The only points in the half for Richmond came on its opening drive, which resulted in a 31-yard field goal by senior Victor Lucero.
For the Vikings, who punted on four of their first five possessions, they managed to cap off a nine-play, 77-yard drive with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter when junior quarterback Aaron Scott handed the ball off to senior tailback Emanuel Wilson, who darted in from three yards out.
But it was Richmond’s defense and special teams that got the second half started off with a bang. The third quarter saw 19 combined points scored and three lead changes, as the Raiders recovered a fumble on North Mecklenburg’s opening drive of the second half. And despite going three-and-out on offense, Richmond forced the Vikings into a punting situation on the next set of downs after junior punter Kyle Goodwin pinned North Mecklenburg at its own one-yard line.
Just three plays later, senior Clint Snipes came off the line on the left side and blocked Randy Martinez’s punt inside his own 10-yard line. Fellow Raider senior special teamer Delon Wall recovered the ball in the end zone to put the Richmond back on top 10-7 with 6:44 remaining in the third quarter.
North Mecklenburg managed to lead a majority of the offensive categories on the night, most notably in total yards. Head coach, and former Raider wide receiver, Eric Morman’s team racked up 375 total yards to Richmond’s 213, which was the lowest amount the Raiders managed to accumulate all season.
The Vikings also outperformed the Raiders in the run game, as Wilson and Scott combined for 334 rushing yards. Wilson finished the night with a game-high 271 yards on 28 carries and added three rushing scores. For the Raiders, Miller, who was averaging 120.6 yards per game entering Friday, only mustered 70 yards on 16 carries and had no rushing touchdowns.
Hood went 9-of-20 passing for 69 yards with one passing touchdown to Miller. But it was nothing compared to the freshman quarterback’s near record-breaking performance a week earlier in the Sandhills Athletic Conference title game against Scotland, where Hood hit his receivers 24 times for a program second-best 423 passing yards.
Richmond’s offense was also plagued by turnovers, as they coughed the ball up three times on fumbles, and turned the ball over once more on a Hood interception (only his seventh of the season). The four turnovers were the most in a single game for Richmond this season.
After Wall’s blocked punt recovery in the end zone, the Raiders and Vikings would seemingly go score-for-score, as five of the combined final nine drives would result in points scored.
On the ensuing North Mecklenburg drive, Scott would captain his offense down the field and score himself on an 11-yard dash to finish off an impressive 8-play, 91-yard campaign. Richmond senior special teamer Tony McRae blocked Martinez’s extra point attempt which kept the score at a field goal’s differential, 13-10.
But before the Vikings could celebrate, the Raiders regained the lead just 0:13 seconds later following Martinez’s kickoff. Richmond junior kickoff returner Malik Stanback, who has been playing lights out the last two weeks prior, caught the ball at his own 22-yard line and raced back 78 yards to the house to put Richmond up 16-13 with 3:24 remaining in the third frame. Lucero’s PAT was blocked.
Following a punt from each team their next possessions, the Vikings took just two plays to score, this time on a 47-yard burst from Wilson. Trailing 20-16 with 11:06 left in the ball game, the Raiders needed to find the end zone, and they did with a little Raider magic from two of their biggest stars this season.
On a drive that started at their own 44-yard line, the Raiders offense looked to Hood and Miller to get things going. The two playmakers were responsible for every yard gained on the 14-play, 56-yard scoring drive.
Miller found a hole to blast ahead for a 27-yard gain to the North Mecklenburg five-yard line, before Hood threw his only passing touchdown on the night to Miller on a fourth-and-goal situation from the same marking. Raider Stadium buzzed as the hometown kids led again, this time 23-20 after a Trevor Moss PAT with 5:23 left on the clock.
Dante\ Miller (21) finished his Richmond career Friday night. But the senior recently committed to James Madison University to play football.
But the buzz was quickly hushed as the Vikings matriculated the ball 78 yards down the field for their final score of the night in just 3:22, this time ending on a 19-yard run by Wilson, and took over on the scoreboard 27-23.
And then the narrative for a storybook ending was penned for the Raiders as anticipation was built to march down the field on a game-winning drive. Starting at their own 29-yard line with 1:36 left in the game, the Raiders found themselves three plays later in a fourth-and-one situation.
Richmond lined up with Miller in the backfield, and on the snap, Hood handed the ball off to the senior tailback. In what can be defined as a rarity, Miller lost possession of the ball before he made contact with the ground, and the ball squirted loose and into the hands of a North Mecklenburg defender. It was only Miller’s second fumble of the season, but the team’s most costly.
And that’s the way the Raiders’ season would end. Scott would kneel on three consecutive plays to propel the Vikings onto the second round.
Yes, the Raiders expected to win. And no, this isn’t how they wanted their season to end. But if there’s one good thing to come out of Friday’s opening-round playoff loss, it’s that Richmond has an incredibly bright future with arguably one of the best human beings and coaches in the state leading the way.
Resiliency has been on the tip of Richmond’s tongue this year, but now mixed with the learning experience of Friday night, one can only imagine how good the Raiders will be next year when they return Hood for his sophomore season, among other standout players.
Perhaps learning from Friday night’s loss is the first step in returning to state title glory in 2018.
At the time of this publication, head coach Bryan Till was not available for comment. The RO will update this story as new comments emerge.