After his team’s 35-7 win over the Lumberton Pirates on Friday, running back Jalen McLean (who had nearly 90 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries) described the victory as another rung on “the mental ladder.”
For McLean, each week is another game and another rung towards the team’s ultimate goal of a 4-A state championship.
But now, the biggest rung of them all is officially a week away, as the 8-1 Fighting Scots will take on the Richmond Raiders for conference supremacy.
“The biggest game of the year is finally here, so now we can finally address the elephant in the room,” said Scotland coach Richard Bailey after his team’s final home game of the regular season. The Fighting Scots are currently ranked sixth in North Carolina according to the latest polls. “Between this team losing last year’s seniors and all of the new faces, having the conference come down to this final game is all you can ask for as a coach and member of the Scots. I couldn’t be more proud of where we’re at now.”
The Scots appeared to learn from their early struggles against Hoke County last week, when Scotland trailed 19-0 in the first half. But the fumbles which plagued Scotland in that first half against Hoke County reared their ugly head once again briefly in the opening minutes.
The Scots would quickly recover however, and boosted by a smothering defensive performance, Scotland laid the groundwork for what would be a convincing win over Lumberton.
An attempted pitch from quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe was mishandled and jumped upon by Lumberton’s Keanu Brock on the very first Scotland offensive possession of the game. The Pirates would begin the ensuing series inside Scotland’s 40-yard line.
But Lumberton’s momentum would be stifled as fast as it began when the Pirates’ rushing attack met Scotland outside linebacker Artemis Robinson. After some early success, the Pirates would be stuffed on four consecutive runs for no gain, all brought to a stop by Robinson. The Pirates were forced to turn the ball over on downs on both of their first quarter possessions, which gained a total of just 15 yards as the Scots dominated the game clock.
After a 22-yard run from Josh McPhatter on the second drive of the game, Scotland would later find themselves in a fourth down short yardage situation. Rather than barrel ahead with their talented backfield, the Scotland coaching staff instead opted to pass with mere feet to go for the first down.
The risky decision would pay off in a huge way, as Scotland wide receiver Tra’Shawn Gregory would convert a short pass completion into a 48-yard touchdown reception for the Scots’ first score of the game.
After a clock-eating drive from the Scots ended the first quarter of regulation, both teams would exchange turnovers to start the second. After a Scotland fourth down conversion was unsuccessful, a fumble from Lumberton fullback Demetri Sheridan was recovered by Robinson on Lumberton’s first offensive series.
But Scotland’s first play after the fumble recovery saw Ratliffe scramble outside of the pocket on a collapsed play and forced a pass into double coverage. Pirates’ senior cornerback Cedric Jones would make a leaping interception to give the ball right back to Lumberton.
From there, the Pirates would give the Scots a taste of their own medicine with a time-consuming drive that drained the majority of the second quarter. Lumberton utilized five different running backs on this drive, which saw the Pirates gain 52 of their 67 first half yards and push the ball deep into Scotland territory.
The drive would stall inside the Scotland 20 yard line, however, and gave the Scots another chance to put more points on the board with less than two minutes left in the quarter. Enter Gregory once again, who caught passes for eight and 41 yards to bring his total to 106 yards in the first half alone. Scotland’s McLean would then take a hand-off 10 yards to give Scotland the ball inside Lumberton’s 10-yard line, and from there Ratliffe himself would score on a QB keeper with 29 seconds left in the quarter to make the score 14-0. Four of Ratliffe’s five first-half pass completions went to Gregory.
Scotland even had the opportunity for yet another score in the waning seconds of the quarter after Lumberton muffed the ensuing kickoff and Scotland’s Tre Thomas recovered. What followed next was a screen pass from Ratliffe to McPhatter that the game-breaking tailback would take 57 yards for a Scotland touchdown. However, one of the Scots’ recurring struggles all season has been ill-timed penalties, and on this play it would be no exception. McPhatter’s touchdown catch would be called back due to a block-from-the-back penalty. The half ended with Scotland up over Lumberton 14-0.
“It’s hard to correct our mistakes when it’s someone new committing them each week,” Bailey said. “There’s many years of experience on this coaching staff, and we’re just left shaking our heads sometimes at the miscues that seem to nag us. We simply have to play better football to continue winning games.”
Fortunately for McPhatter, redemption would come on his team’s first offensive possession of a third quarter that saw Lumberton come apart at the seams.
After a beautifully-orchestrated pitch from Ratliffe to Justin Brown went for 18 yards, the very next carry would see McPhatter find the sidelines on a RB sweep that would go for a 33-yard score.
It was only just the start of Lumberton’s woes, as they would once again cough up a fumble on the next series which was picked up by Scotland interior lineman Avery Simmons.
The resulting drive would end in a 12-yard touchdown reception for Gregory, his second of the night. And before the third quarter was in the books, McLean would rumble for a 33-yard TD himself on his final carry of the game.
Lumberton’s sole touchdown came in a fourth quarter where Scotland’s starters had largely exited.
Next week, Scotland will travel to Rockingham for a game with the Raiders that has been heavily hyped all season. The final build towards the 4-A state playoffs has officially begun.