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Thursday, 12 September 2019 04:48

Preview: No. 1 Raiders perfecting mindset ahead of non-conference finale at No. 3 Cardinal Gibbons

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Coach Bryan Till says the Raiders are focusing on their mindset ahead of Friday's showdown. Coach Bryan Till says the Raiders are focusing on their mindset ahead of Friday's showdown. Jimmy McDonald — The Richmond Observer.

ROCKINGHAM — Although their two freshman football teams have met several times over the past few seasons, the Richmond Senior High School and Cardinal Gibbons High School varsity programs will clash for the first time ever this Friday.

And the stakes are expected to be nothing short of a highly anticipated regular-season matchup certain to bring with it an air of postseason excitement between the two ranked East Division teams.

Dubbed as the “Game of the Week” by WRAL-TV’s, the No. 1 Raiders and No. 3 Crusaders will meet under the lights for Cardinal Gibbons’ “Faith, Family and Football” game. The Crusaders will be Richmond’s 86th all-time opponent and the ninth Wake County team the Raiders will face.

Both teams enter the non-conference game undefeated on the season, as Richmond (3-0) is coming off a statement win in Week 3, having shut down the No. 8 Butler Bulldogs 42-14. Cardinal Gibbons (2-0) saw its game last week rained out from Hurricane Dorian, so the Crusaders (4A, CAP 7 Conference) will have had two weeks between kickoffs.

The showdown between the two state champion hopefuls on the Crusaders’ artificial turf field will also be the first time Richmond’s head coach Bryan Till will face Cardinal Gibbons. 

“We’ve had a good relationship with their ninth-grade team, and (Cardinal Gibbons) is such a quality program,” Till shared. “Coach (Steven) Wright has done a great job building that program.

“It’s very important to travel for the playoffs,” he explained of adding Cardinal Gibbons to his team’s slate. “There’s that familiarity with the Raleigh area since we played Wake Forest (High School) the past two seasons. We’re always looking to play quality opponents from both sides of the state, and Gibbons was a likely choice.”

Since Wright took over the Crusaders in 2011, Cardinal Gibbons has won nine or more games in six of the last eight seasons. They’ve also won four CAP 7 conference titles, but have won just two playoff games in the past five years.

In Week 1, the Crusaders made their presence in the East known with a 27-24 win over then No. 1 Wake Forest, snapping the Cougars’ 45-game winning streak.  Through two games this season, Cardinal Gibbons is averaging 42.5 points per game on offense, but its defense is allowing 25.5 points.

On the flip side, the Raider offense has been a well-oiled scoring machine, finding the end zone 16 times in three games, for an average of 41.0 points per game (minus one half of football against Anson High School). 

The Raider defense had back-to-back shutouts against Clayton and Anson high schools to start the season, and gave up just two scores against a Butler team that threw the ball 41 times. That averages out to just 4.6 points per game allowed by Richmond’s defense this season (5.3 PPG including a safety in the season opener).

“We hope this crescendos our non-conference schedule going into our off week,” Till shared of a hopeful win. “The impact of playing with big crowd on Friday with a really strong student section is always good for us to experience.

“All the players may not know what type of adrenaline rush they may experience,” he added. “Knowing there will be a big crowd in a unique setting doesn’t affect us during the week, but I think it could late in the game. The team that doesn’t burn all of its excitement and can play four quarters will be the one that wins.”

Practice has been going as expected for the Raiders, as they prepare for their final walk-through on Thursday. Both sides of the ball are gearing up for a Cardinal Gibbons team that Till said makes “good play calls” on offense and defense.

The Crusaders are led by senior quarterback Drew Harvey, whose 6-3 frame has allowed him to toss 27 completions and five touchdowns in two games. His primary targets will be junior wide receiver Jacob Gill (offered by North Carolina State University) and senior Cameron Noble. Gill leads the team with 12 receptions and is tied with teammate Cam Duarte with two receiving touchdowns.

In the backfield, senior running back Jack Grazen leads a one-two punch along with junior Ethan Hebb. Till said the Raiders have watched film and expect Grazen to take most of the carries (leads the team with 221 rushing yards and four rushing scores), while Hebb has the ability to flank out to receiver.

“They are as about as multiple as you can get on offense,” Till explained of this week’s opposing offense. “We can see anything from five-wide to an unbalanced I-formation under center. But they mostly run a two-tailback set who are also threats at wide receiver.

“What makes them tough is they use the same personnel in all of their formations,” he added. “It really is by committee when it comes to their offense -- (Gill) and (Noble) are good and any of their guys can catch. (Harvey) has learned the system the last few years and distributes the ball really well.”

Trying to get after Richmond junior quarterback Caleb Hood and senior running back Jaheim Covington will be a stout Crusaders’ defense led by senior nose tackle Myles Harp, who Till called “really impressive.” The head coach also noted his opponent’s inside linebackers run hard, and that Brad Denson and the Raider offense can expect “a mixture of coverages, mostly zone with some disguises.”

“Their defensive players run hard and fast to the ball, and that’s a hallmark of a good program,” Till shared. “Cardinal Gibbons’ defense doesn’t really make mistakes. They’re in the right places at the right time, and the scores they’ve given up were just good plays by the other teams.”

Hood is coming off a career night against Butler, having collected five total touchdowns (three rushing, two passing). He was responsible for a game-high 160 rushing yards and a game-high 315 all-purpose yards against the Bulldogs.

While the Raider offense has seen some splash plays in the first couple of weeks, including a new program record 95-yard rushing touchdown by junior Jaron Coleman and a 67-yard sprint by Hood last week, Till noted those plays aren’t always a guarantee, especially against good teams like Cardinal Gibbons.

While he’ll take them as they come along, Till said the difference maker on offense this Friday will be to approach the game with a drive-oriented mindset.

“We’re going to have to win using the mindset of driving the ball down the field,” Till said. “The explosive plays are nice, but we need to go into the game knowing we have to drive the ball. Their defense keeps a lot of things in front of them, so we’ll take short passes and short runs to score, as long as we keep up a strong mentality.”

Hood has thrown for seven scores in the early going, connecting on 23 passes for 480 yards (18.7 yards per completion). He’ll look to keep connecting with junior wideouts Jakolbe Baldwin (eight receptions, 166 yards and two scores) and Dalton Stroman (six receptions, 196 yards and four touchdowns).

Covington and Coleman make a nice duo from the backfield, as Covington has picked up 178 yards on 34 carries (5.2 yards per carry). Coleman has shown his speed the first three weeks, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries (10.1 yards per carry). 

Richmond’s defense is currently led by junior linebacker CJ Tillman, who has collected 20 tackles in three games. Senior linebackers Gavin Russell (17 tackles), Dre Bethea (15 tackles) and Joerail White (15 tackles) will look to limit the Crusaders’ fiery offense.

The Raiders have only intercepted one ball this season, a grab by senior cornerback Amir Webb in Week 1. That’s something Till hopes to see change against Cardinal Gibbons.

“Defensively, we can’t give them any chances to score,” Till noted. “Cardinal Gibbons is a strong play-calling team, and if we give them a weakness, they can take control of that.

“We need to finish our assignments, be physical, run to the ball and create turnovers on defense,” he closed. “We haven’t made many turnovers, so we want to change that. The most physical team that maintains itself for all four quarters will be the one that comes out on top.” 

Kickoff at Cardinal Gibbons High School, located at 1401 Edwards Mill Road in Raleigh, is slated for a 7 p.m. start. Fans can buy pre-order tickets online by clicking here, and are encouraged to arrive early to beat parking traffic.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 September 2019 08:29

Kyle Pillar

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