Thursday, 05 December 2019 12:13

Preview: No. 1 Raiders ready, focused for Vance in West regional finals

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Caleb Hood and the Richmond offense are ready to face a tough Vance defense in Friday's regional championship. Caleb Hood and the Richmond offense are ready to face a tough Vance defense in Friday's regional championship. Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — It’s been a while, 11 years to be exact, since the Richmond Raider football team has run a full slate of practice during the first week of December. And it’s the first time in Bryan Till’s nine-year head coaching career he’s gearing up for postseason play in the weeks before Christmas.

And both are excited and grateful for the opportunity.

With clouds of breath puffing over the practice fields this week, the Raiders are just two wins away from completing a perfect season and winning the NCHSAA 4AA state championship. But separating No. 1 Richmond (13-0) from a chance at playing in its ninth all-time title game will be No. 10 Vance High School.

While the ultimate goal is still to bring home the Raiders’ eighth state title banner, Till and his players aren’t looking past a fast and physical Vance team. Richmond’s coaching staff and players alike are soaking in the experience, and acknowledging the weight, of being in the final four of a rigorous West bracket.

“I’ve gotten as many text messages and phone calls as I ever have from people all over the state congratulating us,” Till said. “It means something to have gotten to this point and now people are interested in following us.

“This week is different because there are so many more eyes on us,” he added. “There are just four (4AA) teams left and there’s an understanding that goes along with the weight of the week, especially for the seniors. The realization our season could end at any moment is really big.”

As Till said this, he thumbed over a golden four leaf clover given to him earlier in the week from Mrs. Claudette Brownley, the widow of the late Mr. Charles Brownley, the original Mr. Raider mascot. The golden token was inscribed with a message about “faith, hope and love” with the final clover representing “luck.” 

In order for the Raiders to keep their postseason run alive, skill, talent and a little Raider Magic from the community will be needed to oust Vance.

The Cougars (11-2) and head coach Glenwood Ferebee will visit Raider Stadium on Friday in what will be the visiting team’s second consecutive regional championship appearance. In 2018, the Cougars represented the West in the state championship, but lost 9-7 to three-time reigning 4AA state champion Wake Forest High School.

To get to the West regional championship, Richmond has defeated No. 8 Hough and No. 4 Myers Park. Vance has also impressed, defeating No. 7 Butler, No. 2 Mallard Creek and No. 3 West Forsyth.

In what promises to be a battle of two physical teams with suffocating defenses, it will be the fifth all-time meeting between the Raiders and Cougars. Richmond is 4-0 in those matchups, including two postseason wins in 2003 and 2004. All four meetings have taken place in Rockingham and Richmond has outscored Vance 158-90 in the series.

The last time they played was in Week 3 of the 2014 regular season, a 42-37 Richmond victory that saw the Raiders stop the Cougars at the two-yard line on their final drive.

This go around will feature two of the best defenses in the state, seeing Vance allow just 9.77 points per game this season, including just 14 total points in three playoff games this season. The Raiders aren’t far behind, giving up 13.15 points per contest.

Vance is led by junior inside linebacker Power Echols, who Till called “the best linebacker in the state, and possibly the country, in his class.” Another linebacker who presents a threat against the Raider offense is senior linebacker Stefon Thompson, who is a Syracuse University commit and an offensive threat, too.

Other players who will look to limit Brad Denson’s explosive offense are senior outside rushers Cameo Stephens (No. 3) and Steve Sings (No. 9), along with senior defensive backs Jaylen Gullatte (No. 4) and Marqui Lowery (No. 7), and junior defensive tackle Jonathan Cannon, who’s 6-4, 250 pounds.

“They are definitely the fastest defense we’ve seen this year,” Till said. “We’re trying to move guys around so we can have an advantage. The big thing is to be patient (on offense) and take the yards we are given.

“Both teams play really disciplined football,” he added. “We need to play really good defense on our side so we can put our offense in position to score using a short field.”

Till said what stands out most about the Cougars’ defense is its “speed to football.” He noted their hunger and tenacity to get there, and explained while Powers and his fellow linebackers get most of the attention, Vance “has players at all levels (on defense) who get there and tackle in space.”

“This game is similar (to Myers Park) from the standpoint that it’s a big game,” Till said. “Vance is an experienced football team that’s extremely talented. 

“The difference is in the defense, that’s where all their high-profile talent is,” he added. “Coach Anthony Hackett does a good job scheming, and they run a 4-3 defense with multiple coverages.”

But the Raiders are looking to ride the wave of emotions experienced during their thrilling round-three victory over Myers Park and use the crowd’s energy to help the Raiders offset the Cougars.

And they have one of the most explosive and dynamic offenses in the state to help do that.

Junior quarterback Caleb Hood and junior wide receiver Jakolbe Baldwin are fresh off of career performances against the Mustangs, and the duo is flanked by running back Jaheim Covington and Dalton Stroman, along with a laundry list of playmakers.

Through 13 games, the Raiders have scored 562 total points (43.23 points per game), which puts the current team as the fourth-highest scoring team in the program’s 47-year history. Just 18 more points will move the Raiders to third all-time.

Denson has cultivated an offense that can see the likes of Hood or Covington or junior Jaron Coleman burst ahead for scoring plays of 70 yards or longer with regular routine. The route running by the receivers, which also include Tremel Jones and Kellan Hood, finds the soft spots in the defense and the upfield blocking disposes of any disadvantages.

Behind the mantra of “make your link strong,” several players and coaches in the Raider locker room acknowledged the togetherness needed to keep their postseason going. 

Richmond’s defense will hit the field Friday after making second-half adjustments against Myers Park that limited the Mustangs to just 12 points in the final two quarters. Till, the team’s defensive coordinator, noted Vance’s “offense is good,” so his Raiders will have to complete their part of the job to give the offense opportunities to score.

Till highlighted some Vance players, starting with junior quarterback Austin Grier who he described as a mobile quarterback. Thompson also works as a tailback and showed his speed with a touchdown of over 50 yards against Butler.

The primary targets the Raider linebackers and defensive backs will have to shut down are Jordan Payne (No. 8) and Michai Riley (No. 15). Junior Joseph Morris serves as the Cougars’ primary running back.

“Our scout team has showed great energy this week and has helped us get good (offensive) looks,” Till said. “Simulating their speed is difficult, but our guys are flying around and working hard to help us get ready. Everything is regular and routine.

“We’re excited,” he closed. “Last year we got beat in the third round, so this is some new, exciting unknown ground we’re trying to cover. But it’s still a football game at the end of the day.”

Pre-sale tickets are still available at local pharmacies and at Richmond’s front office. The Raider Tailgate “block party” will reconvene ahead of game time, starting at 4:30 p.m. Tickets will be sold at the gate, which will open to fans two hours ahead of kickoff, which is slated for 7:30 p.m.

Note: Season stats were not available for Vance players. Deon Cranford contributed to this article.

Last modified on Thursday, 05 December 2019 17:17

Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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