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Playing tough teams early could make difference for Butler

By Langston Wertz Jr.
lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

When Butler High football coach Brian Hales put together his team’s schedule this season, he knew the Bulldogs could get off to a slow start.

Butler played Sweet 16 No. 1 Mallard Creek, the top-ranked team in the Associated Press N.C. 4A poll, at Mallard Creek. Butler played 2011 N.C. 4AA state champion Greensboro Page. Then, Butler played at 4A state power Mount Tabor.

Friday, the Bulldogs ended their month of high-level football at Richmond Senior. A decisive 49-32 win at Richmond, ranked No. 3 in the N.C. 4A AP poll, gave Butler a 2-2 record in those four games. It also gave Hales a glimpse of the team his Bulldogs can become.

Butler (3-2) lost 20-7 to Mallard Creek, beat Page 56-14 and fell behind Mount Tabor 25-0 before losing 25-19.

Friday, in Rockingham, the Bulldogs record a huge win. For a team that’s won three state titles in four years, this season feels as if Butler is starting over. The Bulldogs graduated 16 starters and a handful of All-Americans from the 2012 unbeaten team, one of the best in N.C. history.

If 2012 ended one era at Butler, we could be looking at the beginning, rather quickly, of another. And it’s interesting that the marquee win of the new season should come at Richmond Senior. In 2009, the season that launched the previous Butler dynasty, the Bulldogs – then led by quarterback Christian LeMay – rallied for a signature 38-31 win at Richmond Senior that gave the team confidence and belief.

We might look back at Friday night as history repeating itself.

“We’re such a work in progress right now,” Hales said. “We’re starting to develop an identity and figure out offensively what we’re trying to do. Some of it is kids trying to get comfortable. We made some mistakes at Mount Tabor, especially on the offensive end and we put our defense in some tough spots, with them having to be on the field a lot.”

Butler sophomore running back Benny LeMay, Christian’s brother, scored four touchdowns Friday night and junior quarterback Anthony Ratliff threw for 327 yards and rushed for 152 more. It was a stark contrast to the offense that sputtered mightily in Winston-Salem just seven days earlier. Butler’s defense, forced to play heavy minutes, gave up 236 rushing yards in the Mount Tabor loss.

Hales said his team was flat against Mount Tabor, and he took the blame. He was also a little excited because the tough schedule was sending Butler right back on the road again.

“With so many new faces, going into an environment like that (at Mount Tabor) and having a long bus trip, that can be tough,” Hales said. “And that’s why I felt it was perfect for us to get right back on the bus and take a similar trip into a similar environment at Richmond. It was almost, for the kids, an ability to take a re-test, really.”

This time, the Bulldogs passed with flying colors.

“With a young team,” Hales said, “you’ll have a lot of peaks and valleys, but I thought all along that we’d get better and that the schedule was going to help us. They had to really grow up in a hurry, and I knew it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing. We certainly didn’t have an overinflated opinion of ourselves because we’d been humbled a couple of times. And us ending the non-conference schedule with Richmond sets us up well for conference season.”

And the playoffs, too.

• Charlotte Country Day’s 25-21 win Friday at Durham Hillside is one of the biggest upsets of the season. Country Day is small private school. Hillside, with its three major-college recruits, is ranked No. 10 in the AP 4A poll.

Country Day held Hillside to 82 rushing yards and just 2.5 yards per attempt. Hillside attempted six fourth-down conversions and didn’t convert any. Country Day rallied from a 21-7 deficit on the road, getting a win to match the ones the Bucs had against major public school powers Crest and Rock Hill Northwestern in past years.

Country Day’s Thomas Jackson caught seven passes Friday for 102 yards. He ran for 53 yards and a touchdown. He also had a 63-yard punt return for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.

Also credit coach Bob Witman’s defense, which held Hillside to 38 yards on its final six possession and had an interception.

• Conference play begins this week in Mecklenburg County, and I expect to see some spirited races. Looks like Butler and Independence will have a huge say in who wins the Southwestern 4A. The MECKA 8 looks like a two-horse race with Mallard Creek and Hough, teams that will meet at Mallard Creek Oct. 11. In the CISAA, Charlotte Christian and Country Day look like the favorites, and in the new SoMeck 8, it appear to be a wide-open race with Ardrey Kell, Charlotte Catholic, Olympic and West Meck all looking like solid contenders.

Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr; Facebook.com/queencitypreps
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