ROCKINGHAM — To a person they all agree there was a great deal of pressure to try and match or exceed last season’s once-in-a-lifetime run to the state playoffs.
Last year’s team lost its opening game then reeled off 28 straight victories before dropping its last two in the East Region championship series to Fuquay-Varina to end with a 28-3 record.
Seniors Bradley Brown, James Buie and Nic Bullard said this season’s team is more like the one in 2012. That team was 20-6 going into the state 4A playoffs and Richmond is 15-6-1 this year.
As sophomores, the trio helped guide the Raiders to a surprising run to the East Region title series with Middle Creek despite finishing tied for second in the Southeastern Conference.
“Bradley and I were talking about that the other day,” Buie said. “We always start out slow and get hot at the end.”
One of the biggest similarities the two teams share is that both limped into spring break. In 2012, Richmond had dropped two of three games and this year’s squad had lost four of seven.
Then a light came on for both teams during the break.
Richmond won the Southern Lee tournament two years ago en route to rattling off 10 wins over a 12-game stretch heading into the playoffs. The only hiccups were losses to Scotland — in the regular-season finale and SEC tournament championship.
This season, the Raiders captured the Beach Diamond Invitational to kick start a five-game winning streak as it opens the SEC tournament tonight at home against Scotland.
Bullard wasn’t sure that light was going to come on.
“I had my doubts early in the year to tell the truth,” he said. “We weren’t gelling and we weren’t working together as a team.”
Bullard believes the trip to West Brunswick was the turning point in the season.
“It was definitely a bonding experience,” Bullard said. “We had no one else for three days. These trips were one of my favorite things in high school.”
Brown added despite the struggles in the middle of the season, the team was still focused.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and match the 28-game winning streak,” Brown said. “In conference, we hit a bump in the road. Our goals were to win the conference, win the conference tournament, go deep in the playoffs and win a state championship…winning 28 games in a row was not our goal.”
The biggest difference between the two teams is where they finished in the conference standings. This year’s team captured the conference regular season title with an 8-2 mark, while the 2012 squad was tied for second with Pinecrest. The Raiders lost the coin flip and was relegated to the No. 3 seed. Richmond defeated Hoke in the first round and then took out Pinecrest in the semifinal to gain the tiebreaker for the state playoffs.
This season’s team has the luxury of knowing it will be the SEC’s top seed when the NCHSAA releases the brackets later this week. This means Richmond will have at least two home games in the postseason, just as it did in 2012.
“If we listen to the coaches, they will get us where we need to be,” Buie said. “The experience Nic, Bradley and I have, we can show the younger players the way.”
Sports editor Shawn Stinson may be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.