The build to the current success that the E.E. Smith Golden Bulls are currently enjoying has been slow and arduous for all involved. Prior to 2012, the Golden Bulls sunk as low as a winless season in 2008 before current head coach Duran McLaurin took the reigns shortly thereafter.
But from there, the team slowly began to reload and adopt their new coaches’ philosophy, reflected in a gradual improvement in E.E. Smith’s record over the past few seasons. And now, the Golden Bulls have turned their fortunes around 180 degrees, as they finished the regular season with a 9-1 record and a conference championship in a perennially-stacked 4A Mid-South.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it mirrors last season’s Fighting Scots, who completed a turnaround of their own en route to an undefeated, 4A state championship season.
But forgive current Scotland coach Richard Bailey for wanting to play the role of spoiler in Friday night’s clash with the Golden Bulls.
“They are a team that hit rock bottom, and coach (McLaurin) has done a great job building them towards this point in the season,” Bailey said. “They’ve come all the way back and have really returned to their glory days, because E.E Smith has a lot of football tradition. I hope we put an end to it though, because we don’t want to be part of someone else’s storybook season.”
As he’s grown accustomed to doing over the years, Bailey dedicated many an hour near the end of the regular season researching all of the possible 4A state playoff scenarios that the Scots would face. But when the official brackets were released following Scotland’s season-ending victory over Richmond, one potential opponent jumped out immediately in the Mideast pod.
“They were definitely a team that concerned us at the very beginning,” said Bailey upon discovering that E.E. Smith would appear as a possible opponent. Bailey is no stranger to the Golden Bulls, having faced them every year during his coaching tenure at Jack Britt, also a 4A Mid-South team. “You’re talking about a conference champion from a very tough area of football. And they are a team that, if they smell blood in the water, will continue feeding off that success.”
In many respects, the Golden Bulls are a team that mirrors the Fighting Scots beyond the similar paths that each team has traveled.
Much like what Scotland quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe has been able to accomplish this season, E.E. Smith also has a signal-caller that has proven equally effective in both the running and passing game. He is senior QB Phillip Bell, a player who has put up startlingly good stats this year in an offense that has average 33.6 points per game (an average very similar to the Fighting Scots).
Bell has thrown for 1823 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 63% completion percentage, with just five interceptions through 12 games. And on the ground, Bell lead his team with 1326 rushing yards and another 19 rushing touchdowns. The second-leading rusher on the team is Sulamian Mustafaa with 923 yards and eight touchdowns.
The similarities on offense don’t end there, as the Golden Bulls also have a true deep threat lined up at wide receiver that resembles Scotland’s Tra’Shawn Gregory in his ability to break a game open.
E.E. Smith wide receiver Ismail Williamson has been utilized by Bell all season long as a player that keeps run-intensive defenses honest, to the tune of 1011 receiving yards, 52 catches and 13 touchdown receptions which make up the bulk of Bell’s passing numbers.
And in terms of athleticism, both teams appear to be equally matched at nearly every position. But Bailey hopes that Scotland has the advantage in another critical category.
“They are just as athletic as us, and they’ll look pretty good getting off that team bus,” Bailey said. “Whenever a team has solid athletes they always have a chance, and E.E. Smith certainly has plenty of them. But I’d like to think that we have more experience with big games based on the schedule we’ve played this year.”
Reflecting on the first two playoff games of the season, Bailey remains surprised at the relative ease that Scotland has put away their opponents. By the time the third quarter rolled around in each of Scotland’s 40-5 (East Chapel Hill) and 56-27 (Lee County) playoff victories, the games had already long been decided.
With that said, Bailey believes the Fighting Scots haven’t been lulled into a false sense of security and are fully expecting to be tested Friday night.
“I thought those other games might have been tougher, so I may have lost some credibility in terms of predicting closer scores,” said Bailey with a laugh. “But the truth is, we forgot about those first two playoff games the minute they were over. This team understands that there are no easy games in the third round, and they know it’s only going to get harder.”