RAEFORD — Southeastern Conference football coaches and players converged on Bayonet Golf Course at Puppy Creek Sunday afternoon for the annual meeting with the media, and Scotland was picked to win its fifth straight conference title by a near-unanimous vote.
The Scots garnered all eight of the first-place votes submitted by the media, and five of the six SEC coaches tabbed Richard Bailey’s team as the preseason favorite.
Lumberton was the only other team that received a first-place vote.
Scotland topped the media poll with eight points, while Pinecrest was picked to finish second with 18 total points. Richmond followed in third place with 23, and Lumberton was fourth with 35. Hoke and Purnell rounded out the schools with 36 and 48 respectively.
In the coaches poll, Scotland topped the standings with seven points and Pinecrest was the runner-up with 18. Richmond and Lumberton tied for third with 21 points while Hoke and Purnell Swett totaled 29 and 30.
The Scotland program, which officially kicked its season off this weekend with its “Midnight Madness” practice Friday night, is no stranger to expectations. Bailey’s team enters the year as one of the favorites in not only its conference, but to also advance to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association state championship game in December.
“For this time of year I feel good about the direction we’re headed in and we just have to keep grinding,” Bailey said. “We’re not a perfect product yet but I like some of the new wrinkles and things we’re working on and different kinds of paces we’re going to do next year.”
Scotland won its fourth straight conference title last season, defeating Richmond Senior 34-13 in the winner-take-all regular season finale. The Scots finished 12-2 overall, falling to Hoggard 24-21 in the quarterfinals of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
Scotland fielded the top defense in the SEC last season, allowing its five opponents to scored a combined 68 points. The unit was led by conference Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Smith, who finished with 156 tackles and four sacks.
While several key players from last year’s team graduated, Smith said he likes the way their replacements have stepped up in summer practices.
“The new guys were getting a lot of playing significant playing time last year, so our chemistry is very good right now,” Smith said. “We know our strengths and weaknesses, and we don’t have very many weaknesses, but we’re going to get it done.”
Led by coach Chris Metzger, Pinecrest placed third in the SEC last year at 3-2 and finished 11-3 overall. The Patriots lost close contests to Scotland and Richmond last year, and were defeated by Wake Forest 45-21 in the second round of the 4AA playoffs.
Pinecrest, perhaps to the surprise of some, is expected to supplant Richmond for second place thanks to a strong returning core that features starting quarterback Christian Ledbetter.
Richmond was one game away from winning the SEC in 2014, recording a 4-1 conference mark with an 11-2 overall record. The Raiders fell in the second round of the 4AA bracket, losing to Millbrook 28-27. Richmond saw its former coach, Paul Hoggard, leave for Edenton Holmes this offseason and replaced him with Middle Creek coach Mike Castellano.
Three teams tied for fourth at the bottom of the conference last season as Purnell Swett, Hoke and Lumberton finished 1-4 in the SEC.
Former Rams coach Mark Heil resigned following a 4-7 campaign, and former Douglas Byrd offensive coordinator Jon Sherman was hired as his replacement. Hoke also finished 4-7 under Tom Paris, and Lumberton, coached by Mike Setzer, was 5-6.
With the regular season set to begin in a little more than two weeks, those three schools, along with Pinecrest and Richmond, will look to take back a conference crown worn by Scotland for nearly half a decade.
Despite the mounting expectations surrounding the Scots as they prepare for the season opener against South View on Aug. 21, Smith said his team is ready to defend its spot in the SEC hierarchy.
“We embrace the challenge to be the top pick to win state,” he said. “We embrace it every day and we use that inspiration to go out there and work hard … .
We’ve won the conference four years straight and plan on making it five.”
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.