ROCKINGHAM — With a win now on the board, the Richmond Raider football team has another tough task at hand on Friday night.
Starting Sandhills Athletic Conference play last week with a win over Southern Lee, the Raiders and head coach Bryan Till will look to repeat the success against Pinecrest High School.
The stakes are raised for Friday’s matchup, which will be the first of two consecutive SAC games against 4A opponents for the Raiders.
Since the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s conference realignment in 2020, which landed Richmond in a 3A/4A split conference, all of Richmond’s athletic programs have to contend with just Pinecrest and Hoke County to try and earn a postseason bid.
That, along with a growing nature of competitiveness and unique familiarity between the Raiders and Patriots, has put an added emphasis on the neighboring county rivalry.
With potential playoff implications on the line due to the split conference, Richmond has continued its preparation in the days of practice leading up to its home game with the Patriots.
“It was a welcomed boost but it has still been a tough week with multiple guys missing practice due to illness,” Till said of the team’s first win. “Because of this, we have actually slowed the tempo a little to ensure we have all our guys on the right page.
“It is a big game with 4A playoff implications,” he added. “In addition, we had won the conference for four straight years before they beat us last year and ended up as the leaders. We know, even though it’s early in the conference, this game can have big implications on who finishes with the title.”
The Patriots, who are coming off their bye week, enter SAC play on a four-game winning streak. Picking up non-conference wins over Knightdale, Overhills, Middle Creek and New Hanover high schools, Pinecrest’s perfect start comes from facing teams that enter week six with a combined 4-13 record.
Coached by Nick Eddins, who has ties to the Raiders as an assistant coach from 2002-2011, Pinecrest has chipped away at the historically Richmond-dominated series the past couple of seasons.
With the Raiders leading the all-time series 41-4, the Patriots won last season’s meeting 30-27. In the two prior matchups, Richmond won by seven points each time.
“There is tons of familiarity since they are very close, have been in the conference for years with us, and have several coaches who we have coached with,” Till shared. “With only two other 4A teams in the conference, this game can’t be overstated.
“They are balanced because they try to take what other teams give them, as well as having playmakers who can run, throw and catch.”
Pinecrest’s offense has averaged 38.5 points per game this season and uses a balanced attack of passing and rushing. Senior quarterback Mason Konen and junior running back Zymire Spencer are key pieces to the offense.
Konen averages 133 passing yards per game along with 10.3 completions per four quarters. Now 41-of-63 passing, Konen has found the end zone four times and has thrown four interceptions. Not too mobile, Konen has only rushed for 30 yards on 10 carries.
Spencer leads the Patriots with 10 rushing touchdowns and has averaged 127.3 rushing yards per game. Carrying the ball 82 times, he’s collected 509 yards on the ground. From Konen, he’s caught seven passes and added another score.
While only averaging 29.5 yards on the ground per game, senior tailback Jaylin Morgan (also a linebacker) has added an effective punch in the end zone with five touchdowns.
Four wide receivers are averaging at least 20 yards per game this season — junior Elijah Melton (14 catches, 48.3 yards per game), junior Ricardo Mercado (9 catches, 44.5 YPG), sophomore Cole Harrison (6 catches, 26.3 YPG) and junior JT Medley (8 catches, 20.0 YPG).
“The offense is multiple, but mainly 3×1 and 2×2 sets with some wildcat sets,” Till said of the Patriots’ schemes. “No. 14 (Mercado) is a shift slot wide receiver and No. 0 (Melton) is a big kid who can go up and get the football anywhere.
“The wildcat sets feature No. 4 (Morgan) and other fullbacks, halfbacks and tight ends. (Morgan) is a hard-nosed running back who runs downhill for positive yardage.
“We also have to be aware of the backup QB (Cody Hansen) because he plays quite a bit and he and (Konen) are very different type players. He can also play slot wide receiver, which brings a lot of other options to the table as well. With them having a bye week last week, there is always the chance of a new wrinkle.”
Pinecrest’s defense, coordinated by former Richmond defensive coordinator James Johnson, has allowed just 11.8 points per game, albeit against teams that have combined to average only 17.7 points a night.
The Patriots are led by Shrine Bowl selection Jadin Baptist, a senior linebacker who records 9.3 tackles per contest.
Other top tacklers are junior linebacker Keegan Cole-Bryan (6.0 TPG), junior defensive back William Miller (5.3 TPG) and senior safety Cohen Martinez (5.0 TPG). Morgan, who also plays inside linebacker, leads Pinecrest with six tackles-for-loss, three sacks and 11 QB hurries.
Miller, Melton and sophomore Corben Dallas each have two interceptions this fall, which combines for three-quarters of all of Pinecrest’s interceptions.
“They run a 3-4 and 4-3 hybrid (on defense),” Till said. “Coach Johnson does a great job of mixing looks between the two and a couple different coverages.
“(Morgan) and (Baptist) are linebackers who make a ton of plays and run to the ball. They are well-coached at every level and do what they are supposed to do.”
Kickoff between the Raiders (1-4, 1-0 SAC) and the Patriots (4-0, 0-0 SAC) will get underway at 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be sold at the gate or can be purchased online at GoFan.Co.