Thursday, 15 April 2021 18:08

PREVIEW: No. 4 Raiders 'studying' for No. 5 Middle Creek

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The defensive line (left) works against the offensive line during Tuesday's practice. The defensive line (left) works against the offensive line during Tuesday's practice. Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — The excitement surrounding the Richmond Senior High School football team during practice this week has been “palpable,” head coach Bryan Till said.


Set to return to the playoffs after a deep run in 2019, the No. 4 Raiders have been hard at work preparing for No. 5 Middle Creek High School on Friday.

In what will be the first ever meeting between the two football teams, in either the regular or postseason, Till said the team has upped its efforts in studying for an opponent that is largely unfamiliar to Richmond.

“Excitement is the best way to say how we’re feeling,” Till said. “The guys are focused trying to learn everything there is to learn about this team. We don’t play Raleigh teams a lot — so there’s been a lot of studying going on. 

“And most importantly, the guys are out here flying around and glad to be back together and working on the field again.”

Till and the Raiders (3-0) haven’t played a game since March 26, a 48-8 win over Lumberton High School. The team followed a 10-day quarantine which saw the last three regular-season games ruled no-contests.

When the Mustangs (6-1) and head coach Randy Ragland visit Raider Stadium on Friday, it will be their eighth game of the season, giving them a four-game advantage over the Raiders. 

Although it’s been out of the hands of Richmond, Till said all his team can do to prepare is put in extra work in the film room and on the practice field.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Till said of the game experience differential. “We’ve done a good job of sending kids more film and more info this week, and they’ve spent a lot of time studying.

“We’ve only played three games, and did nothing for almost two weeks. There will be a lot of rust to knock off, and I expect there to be fireworks in the first quarter.”

Till was also quick to admit there are a lot of unknowns about the Mustangs, who finished second in the South Wake Conference. The last several years, the Raiders have traditionally played programs out of Charlotte, both in the regular and postseason.

Competing in the 4A East this spring, that opened the door to familiar Sandhills Athletic Conference teams, but also prompted some question marks about Raleigh-based programs. 

Due to what Till called the inconsistency of football across the state, preparing for Middle Creek has proven challenging.

“It’s tough — football is so inconsistent across the state right now,” Till explained. “It’s very hard when watching film to learn things about teams because we see some really great players, but it’s hard to measure how good someone is or judge the disparity of opposing teams.

“We’ve got some adjustments in place, and honestly we won’t know everything about Middle Creek until the end of the game,” he added. “But we do know they are historically a very good program.”

Junior QB Kellan Hood (5) throws a pass during practice on Monday, as the No. 4 Raiders prepare for No. 5 Middle Creek.

The Mustangs are averaging 38.9 points per game on offense through seven games this year, while only allowing 8.6 points per game on defense. Compare that to Richmond’s averages of scoring 47.3 points per game and holding opposing offenses to 19 points per game, and Friday’s matchup should be competitive.

Middle Creek’s defense recorded two shutouts this spring, and held three other opponents to 12 points or less. The Mustangs “mainly run a 3-4 defense with multiple coverages on the back end.”

The Raiders’ offense is preparing for a front three that’s highlighted by “extremely explosive” nose tackle Stephen Holland, who also plays defensive end. 

Senior defensive back Na’shawn Biggs leads the team with 38 tackles and guides a secondary “that runs to the ball really well.” Senior DB Michael Macaluso has two interceptions to lead the team, and is second in tackles with 17.

Middle Creek runs a spread offense, using two-by-two or three-by-one receiver sets. But it can also be power oriented, as Till said this year’s team runs the ball more than he’s seen any other Mustangs team do in the past.

Junior quarterback Chad Kearns, who is a mobile threat, “isn’t a huge runner, but can extend plays and escape the pocket.” Till added Richmond is preparing for Kearns’ ability to make long throws down field.

According to MaxPreps.com, Kearns has 13 passing touchdowns and five interceptions, and is averaging 198.6 passing yards per game. 

Nearly a half dozen Mustangs have caught a touchdown pass, but senior wide receiver Tharius Suggs is “the No. 1 receiver,” with 27 receptions and 386 yards. Junior Adam Booker has 20 catches for 402 yards, and the two have combined for six receiving scores.

Other offensive threats include Breyden Harrison, who also plays defensive back, and his vertical capabilities. Senior Kyle Ihle lines up in the slot and “blocks like crazy.”

Out of the backfield, senior tailback Dorien Stewart leads the team with 747 rushing yards on 122 carries and 11 scores. Till noted his “low center of gravity that allows him to run between the tackles and make reads really well.” 

The offensive line, Till added, is really big, and called Middle Creek’s offense the best one the Raiders will have seen to this point in the season.

For the Raiders, it will be junior quarterback Kellan Hood and an assortment of options out of the backfield and on the wings who will provide the offensive firepower. In three games, Hood is averaging 163.3 yards per game through the air, has thrown four touchdowns and added two on the ground.

Senior slot receiver Tremel Jones leads the team with 241 yards on 14 catches and two touchdowns. Fellow senior Dalton Stroman also has 14 catches, accumulating 142 yards and one score. 

Jaron Coleman is the Raiders’ No. 1 tailback, gathering 175 yards on 35 carries and tacking on a team-high five rushing scores. Junior Nasir Crumpton and sophomore Brandon Askins are also options out of the backfield.

A handful of defensive players like Mikey Baldwin, C.J. Tillman, Gabe Altman, Jayme Allen, Isaiah Jones, Kaleel Brown and J.D. Lampley boast impressive numbers for an aggressive front seven for the Raiders.

Baldwin leads the team with 20 tackles, Altman has a team-best six tackles for loss, Allen has five tackles for loss and both Lampley and Brown have made four stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Altman, Baldwin and Lampley also each have two sacks on the spring, leading the Raiders. Junior cornerback Jamari Broady has the team’s lone INT, which he returned for a touchdown against Lumberton.

One thing Till knows is certain, in order for the Raiders to get a win and advance to the second round, Richmond needs to win the special teams and turnover battles.

“The things we expect to go right are special teams and turnovers,” Till closed. “We need to eliminate turnovers and do the right things on special teams. We also need to avoid selfish penalties.”

A total of 1,000 tickets will be available for Friday’s game, which went on sale on GoFan on Wednesday afternoon. Gates will open at 5:30 p.m.

Richmond’s chase for its eighth NCHSAA 4A state championship will begin with kickoff at 7:30 p.m.

Kyle Pillar

Nine-time N.C. Press Association award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

Submit local sports scores to: kpillar@richmondobserver.com

Twitter: ROSports_