MATTHEWS The last time Butler High was on a football field, the Bulldogs blew a 20-point halftime lead and lost to eventual state champion Greensboro Page.
The Bulldogs led 26-6 at halftime and looked confidently headed to a third straight N.C. 4AA Western Regional championship game. In the second half, though, it all fell apart. Page scored 34 unanswered points and won 40-26.
Butler players have had a long offseason to think about what went wrong. Bulldogs second year coach Brian Hales feels like the loss, and the loss of self-entitlement that went with it, will make his team better.
Because of that renewed focus and desire – and because of the wealth of talent returning – Butler starts the season at a familiar spot: No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16.
The poll, in its 28th season, measures the top 16 teams in the newspaper’s 132-school coverage area in North and South Carolina. While not a true power poll, the Sweet 16 considers how strong a team is within its class, how strong the class is and evaluates a team’s overall talent against its peers and other potentially ranked teams. It does not consider how teams would do head-to-head unless they actually have played.
Butler is preseason No. 1 for the third straight year. Hales thinks his team is properly motivated to stay there all year long.
“Does the way we lost last year make us hungrier? I think so,” Hales said. “We had the (Page) game right where we wanted it. But once mistakes started to happen, we didn’t respond to it very well.
“We had so many kids unfamiliar with being in situations like that. They had never had to struggle since they’d been here.”
Hales said the seniors who graduated last year had played 99 junior varsity and varsity games in their careers at Butler.
They’d lost four games total.
“We were definitely fat and happy,” Hales said. “Our freshman class coming in thought all you had to do was put on those silver helmets and it’s magical and you win games. We just lost sight of what got us there.”
The task of regaining that desire began shortly after the Page loss. The senior leaders came back and outworked everyone in the weight room.
Senior Michael McCaughtry, an offensive lineman, put on 25 pounds he worked out so hard. Even the stars like college recruits linebacker Peter Kalambayi (Stanford), receiver Uriah LeMay (Georgia), quarterback Riley Ferguson (Tennessee) and defensive back Channing Stribling (Michigan) didn’t miss time.
“The rest of the guys are saying if Peter or Uriah are going to work like that and they already have a scholarship, then this must mean something,” Hales said. “They say, ‘I’m going to do what those guys are doing.’ And when your best players are your hardest workers, you’re in pretty good shape, and that’s what we’ve got here.”