When Barry Shuford started the football program at Butler High in 1997, the Bulldogs didn’t look at Independence as much of a rival, even though the schools were just six miles apart. But Shuford said things began changing in 2002, his final season as Bulldogs coach.
In ’02, Independence was coming off a second straight state championship, was nationally ranked and, in quarterback Chris Leak, had the national player of the year. Independence won 27-17 in the regular season, then faced Butler in the N.C. 4A semifinals. Independence won 29-0 en route to another state title. Shuford said that’s when things changed.
The Patriots’ success fueled Butler to work harder, Shuford said
“That fourth-round game was big,” said Shuford, now coach at East Mecklenburg. “That was the start of it. We felt like we could’ve won the state championship if it wasn’t for that group.”
The teams meet again Friday at Butler with high stakes, as the winner will capture the Southwestern 4A Conference championship and a top N.C. 4AA playoff seed. Independence (10-0) is No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll but hasn’t beaten Butler since 2008. Butler (9-1) is No. 2 in the Sweet 16. This will be the teams’ 27th meeting. Independence leads the series 15-11.
Patriots coach Joe Evans, who graduated from West Mecklenburg in 1998, says he has watched this rivalry grow into something special.
“From kind of being an outsider looking in,” he said, “it was like the North Carolina-Duke (college basketball rivalry) of North Carolina high school football. It was the best rivalry in North Carolina. The fact that the kids all grow up together and work out together helps make it that way.
“In the offseason, our guys work out with Butler and Rocky River guys, but that camaraderie they have, they put it aside for one week and it’s a good old-fashioned rivalry. It’s like Florida-Florida State. Independence doesn’t like Butler, and Butler doesn’t like Independence. That’s just how it is.”
When Butler opened, Independence was in its conference. In 2001, the Patriots left. But in 2005, Independence returned to the Southwestern 4A and the teams began playing at the end of every regular season. Friday will mark the seventh time in the past nine seasons the teams have played for the league title.
Since 2002, Independence and Butler have met nine times in the playoffs. Three of those games were for a berth in the state championship game. Of the 12 state championships available in North Carolina’s largest classification since 2002, Independence and Butler have combined to win eight.
And there’s this: Since 1997, when Butler opened, each school has had but one losing season. Independence is 211-37; Butler is 189-50.
“Geez, it’s been something so big,” Butler coach Brian Hales said of the rivalry. “You remember nights with 18,000 people at Memorial Stadium. It’s hard to keep improving on something so great, but it just seems like the games are just getting closer and closer.”
Hales laughs when he recalls his first game in the series. Independence won 48-0 in 2004 when Hales was an assistant under Mike Newsome. But this rivalry has produced some memorable games:
• In 2000, Leak was a sophomore quarterback who threw for 437 yards and ran for 112 in a 37-31 win against Butler. Leak hit running back Mario Crowe with a 68-yard scoring pass with 1 minute left. It was Independence’s first lead since the first quarter, and Leak’s 549 yards of total offense broke a 10-year-old state record .
• In 2006, Butler grabbed a 21-0 halftime lead and threatened to end an Independence winning streak that eventually reach 109 games. More than 15,000 fans at Memorial Stadium saw Independence rally for a 30-24 double-overtime win. Observer columnist Scott Fowler wrote that it was “one of the best (games) I’ve ever witnessed at any level of football.”
• In 2007, Butler’s Robert Blanton – who later played at Notre Dame and is now a third-year Minnesota Viking – caught a scoring pass to give Butler a 21-20 lead late in the regular-season finale against an Independence team that had won seven straight state titles. Later, Blanton helped stop Independence at Butler’s 15 with 11 seconds left. Newsome called it the biggest win – and biggest moment – of his high school career.
• Last season, Butler beat Independence 43-42 in November – but not before the teams scored four touchdowns and had three lead changes in the final three minutes. Butler won when Independence missed a point-after-touchdown kick with no time remaining. Two weeks later, Butler won 46-39 in the playoffs after the teams scored five touchdowns in the third quarter. The Bulldogs recovered an onside kick with 19 seconds remaining to seal the win.
Independence’s Evans said he has tried hard this week to convince his team that this is just another game. He’s not sure it’s working.
“It makes it huge because it’s always for such high stakes,” Evans said. “At the same time, it’s just another football game. You can’t blow it up and say this is the end-all, be-all and it’s win or die. It’s still, end of the day, a high school football game that you’ve got to play.
“I’m glad we’re playing at Butler and it’s not going to be some 8,000-person circus. It’s going to be a 2,500-person football game.”
Throughout the years, the game was often moved to larger venues to accommodate crowds. It’s at Butler on Friday, as Evans said, and will be limited to 2,500 fans of both schools who bought tickets this week. No tickets will be sold at the gate.
Hales said those 2,500 will likely see quite a show – especially if history is any indication.
“The more you’re involved in this,” Hales said, “the more you realize how close this is. Some kids live across the street from each other, with the (attendance) borders being what they are.
“It just says a lot about both programs that we’re so close (in proximity) and push each other so much. I know we talk about them a lot in the offseason and I am fairly confident that they are talking about us over there. Honestly, it makes us both better.”