Butler High football coach Brian Hales said upgrading his team’s non-conference schedule has delivered everything he had hoped.
For the past two seasons, Hales’ Bulldogs have played four state powers in consecutive weeks – Mallard Creek, Mount Tabor, Greensboro Page and Richmond Senior – to get ready for the Southwestern 4A conference season. On Friday, the Bulldogs finish their second run through that grueling schedule, taking on unbeaten Richmond Senior at Providence High. Kickoff is at 7.
“It’s just to get us ready for November,” said Hales, whose unbeaten team is ranked No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll and No. 1 in the N.C. Associated Press 4A statewide poll. “We want to be as aggressive as we can be and make sure our kids are playing good competition. We don’t want to get a false sense of who we are by playing games where we’re winning 49-0. You get an over-inflated opinion of yourself, not just the kids but the coaches as well.”
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In this era of playoff seeding, non-conference losses can make getting to the state championship more difficult. Lower-seeded teams often have to play higher seeds earlier in the playoffs, and those games will likely be on the road.
That threat doesn’t bother Hales in the least.
Last season, Butler lost four times. That was the most by a Bulldogs’ team in a single season since 2004, when Butler was 7-5.
Butler began the 2013 season at 2-2, losing to Mallard Creek and Mount Tabor. It later lost the Southwestern 4A championship to Rocky River, but that experience helped a young Bulldogs team reach a fourth N.C. 4AA Western Regional championship game in five years.
“We’re not worried about getting a loss or two,” Hales said. “We’re not worried about seeding. At the end of the day, we’ve got to play these teams anyway. If we win our non-conference games, we’ll just get those games at home. I mean, we’re confident we’ll see teams like Independence and Mallard Creek down the road.”
Richmond Senior, like Butler, has upgraded its schedule, too.
The Raiders won the 2008 state championship but from 1988-98, they won five, establishing themselves as North Carolina’s top program. In 2000, Tom Knotts developed Independence into North Carolina’s all-time greatest dynasty and raised the level of Mecklenburg County football.
Independence won seven straight state championships and reached eight straight state championship games. Along the way, the Patriots won 109 straight games. As the rest of the county fought to keep up, the level of play got better. Of the seven N.C. 4AA championships played since Independence last won it in 2006, Mecklenburg County teams have won four of them. In smaller classes, Charlotte Catholic has established itself as a power, West Charlotte reached a state championship game and Mecklenburg County private schools have generally dominated their postseason brackets.
Richmond Senior, once the standard, is now scheduling Mecklenburg County teams to better prepare itself for the playoffs.
Richmond has six non-conference games this season. Three are against Mecklenburg County teams. Richmond beat Rocky River 21-14 to start the season and beat Vance 42-37 Sept. 5.
While Butler was forced to play Monday against previously unbeaten Mount Tabor after severe weather postponed the game from Friday, Richmond beat Fayetteville Britt last Thursday, after the game was moved up to avoid the storms. Richmond’s PJ Everett intercepted three passes and the Raiders rushed for 333 yards, led by 109 from Miles Grant and 106 from Quientel Goodwin.
Hales said the Raiders having an extra four days of preparation gives them a bit of an advantage, but he’s awful excited about playing a program with Richmond’s history. The teams have agreed to continue the series for two more years after this one.
“It’s been great for us to play them,” he said. “Even going down there to play in that environment. Their name itself is a big deal. For so long, they were the standard around the state and they carried the flag nationally for North Carolina as well. So it’s been fun, and we’re happy to continue to do it for a few more years.”