Friday, 10 August 2018 00:25

Part III: "Eight Years" -- the 1998 Raider football championship

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ROCKINGHAM -  The Richmond Senior High School football teams of 1978 and 1988 reached their respective state championship games to the surprise of many across the state. 

Prognosticators had picked different schools to take the 4A crown, but the Raiders managed to thwart those predictions, earning the school its first and second state football titles. 

In 1998, the Raiders entered the postseason as the team to beat.  Richmond was the defending state champion and it ended the 1998 regular season 11-0, outscoring its opponents 486-62.  After a 63-11 drubbing of North Forsyth in round one, the Raiders faced rivals Scotland and West Charlotte in the second and third rounds, respectively.

Earlier in the season, the Raiders defeated the Scots 36-14.  While that may not seem to be a very exciting game, that 22-point margin of victory was one of the closest regular season games for Richmond that year.  The only team that came closer was the West Charlotte Lions, who fell to the Raiders 14-0 at Memorial Stadium in non-conference play.

The Raiders easily disposed of Scotland 28-0 to advance to the third round.  It was the second season in a row that the Raiders and Scots met in the playoffs and it was their third all-time postseason meeting. 

That game will probably also mark the final time that the two schools will ever meet in the football playoffs.  With Scotland High School’s average daily membership on a steady decline, it is unlikely that both schools will ever be placed in the same post season bracket again as long as the classes are subdivided in the playoffs.  In fact, many predict that the Scots may even drop into the 3A division in the near future, especially if the NCHSAA keeps the current 20-30-30-20 format.

The Raiders followed their win over the Scots with their two closest games of the entire 1998 season.  The Raiders held on to defeat the Lions by a score of 22-12 in the third round and then slipped passed Mount Tabor 35-26 in the Western Finals to advance to their second straight state title game.  In the championship game, they squared off against the Garner Trojans, coached by none other than Hal Stewart.

Stewart led the Raiders to the school’s first state title in 1978.  In 1987, Stewart’s Trojans defeated Richmond 28-24 in the third round en route to Garner’s only state title.  The Raiders returned the favor in 1989 and 1990.  Richmond won the state title both of those seasons, eliminating Garner from the playoffs along the way.

To defeat the Raiders, Stewart had to come up with a way to stop Michael “The Rabbit” Waddell.  Waddell is remembered by Raider fans for his speed on offense, but he was a major factor in every facet of the game.  In fact, it was his performance on defense and special teams that earned his way into the state record books.

Prior to the state title game, Waddell had earned the records for career punt returns for a touchdown (9), punt returns for a touchdown in a season (7), career total returns for touchdowns (18), and he tied the state record for career interceptions returned for a touchdown (9).  To this day, he still owns each of these records.

Waddell had rushed for over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 1998 and scored 32 touchdowns (20 rushing, nine receiving, two on punt returns, and one interception return).  With all of those stats, it’s no wonder that he had Stewart’s full attention.

If stopping Waddell was all that Garner needed to do, then the Trojans would have defeated the Raiders.  In the title game, The Rabbit only carried the ball seven times for 53 yards, and never once reached pay dirt.  That statistic did not stop the Raiders as they hammered the Trojans 36-6, led by a four-touchdown day by Marcus Ellerbe to win the school’s sixth state title.

Ellerbe rushed for 186 yards in the game and scored three of his four touchdowns in the first half on runs of 46, three, and 13 yards.  He seemed to ice the game with a 93-yard dash to the end zone to put the Raiders up 29-6 midway through the third quarter.  It is the longest recorded rushing play in a state title game at Kenan Stadium, and is still the third longest rushing play in Richmond’s history.

Ellerbe’s long run was set up when Aaron Sykes intercepted a Garner pass at the Raider seven-yard line.  Ellerbe scored on first down following the change of possession.  Waddell and Sykes earned the offensive and defensive MVP awards for their performance in the state title game.  Ellerbe was the game’s overall MVP.

With the win, Richmond became the first 4A school in the state to earn 16 wins in a season.  The Raiders broke, and in some cases shattered, 23 school records during the 1998 season.  They still hold ten of those records to this day including most points scored in a season (670), most single-season rushing yards (5,114), most single-season rushing touchdowns (65), and most total yards of offense in a season (6,208).

Waddell and Ellerbe also earned Southeastern Conference honors winning the offensive and defensive player of the year awards.  Coach Daryl Barnes was voted the SEC Coach of the Year.  Waddell and Ellerbe also participated in the 1998 Shrine Bowl accompanied by Barnes, who was an assistant coach for the North Carolina team.

Quarterback Brad Denson put his name in the Raider record books that season.  He tied Mike Thomas’ record for most passing touchdowns in a single game (4), and also bested Thomas’ record for single-season games with at least one completed pass.  Thomas completed at least one pass in 14 games during the 1989 season.  Denson had 15 in both 1997 and 1998. 

Both of those records have since be broken by the likes of Leon Zeigler and Tedarrius Wiley, but Denson’s part in accumulating 31 consecutive wins and two state title rings makes him one of the most successful quarterbacks in Richmond’s storied history.

Some of Denson’s targets in the air included tight end TJ McCaskill and wide receiver James Hereford.  Reliable kicker Wesley Jackson also contributed to the scoring throughout the season.

Richmond’s offensive line which included Brian Nelson, Donte Ames, Trey McNair and Dion Gardner kept running lanes open all season for their speedy backs.  Along with Waddell, Michael Green was a big playmaker. 

Like Waddell, he rushed for over 1,000 yards.  Some of those contributing to the Raider defense that only allowed just over seven points per game were defensive linemen Anthony Quick, Jeremy Barnes and Darcy Davis.  Linebackers Lang Harrison, Vegas Jackson and Sykes were also big playmakers.  Of course Ellerbe and Waddell had a big impact on defense as well.