Many people probably assumed Butler wouldn’t have much of a chance to compete for their fourth consecutive conference title – much less their fourth Class 4-AA state title in the past five years – after graduating 31 seniors, including 15 starters, from last year’s championship team.
And when nationally ranked Mallard Creek beat Butler in Week 2, there was even more talk of how the power had shifted away from the Bulldogs.
But that’s what happens when you are the team at the top: people always are waiting for you to fail. And that’s just the way junior quarterback Anthony Ratliff wants it.
Ratliff doesn’t have time to worry about the expectations that have been placed on him or what people say he and his teammates can or can’t do. Ratliff is solely focused on helping lead the Bulldogs back to the top while upholding the program’s winning tradition that’s quickly become one of the state’s finest.
Since the 2009 season began, the Bulldogs own a 59-3 record. They’ve sent numerous players onto major college programs and their last two All-American quarterbacks – Christian LeMay (Georgia) and Riley Ferguson (Tennessee) – have been amongst the nation’s most sought after recruits.
And Ratliff is no different.
Like Ferguson, Ratliff guided the Mint Hill Chargers Pop Warner team to a national championship, helped Butler win a state title as a sophomore and has been offered BCS scholarships before he’s started a game for the Bulldogs.
Coach Brian Hales said Ratliff respects the tradition of the position he’s in and wants to make sure he upholds what his predecessors have started.
“He takes a lot of pride in being the starting quarterback for this team and he’s very much about whatever is going to make this team better, whatever will help our offense be more successful,” Hales said.
That was on display last year, while Ratliff was biding his time at receiver, learning the Bulldogs’ offense and waiting for his chance this season.
That chance came sooner than expected after Ferguson broke a bone in his hand before Butler’s fourth game, as ultimately missing part of seven games. Ratliff and senior Zach Gross were forced into action and the talent-laden Bulldogs’ offense never skipped a beat – even though their offense was in the hands of a kid not yet old enough to drive.
“I learned to be more mature and that’s really helped me,” Ratliff said. “I was a 15-year-old sophomore and I had to come in the Friday Night Lights filling those kind of shoes. It made me mature very fast, but playing against some of those teams helped with my game and leadership.”
As a fill-in, Ratliff performed admirably on the field, completing 20 of 36 passes for 358 yards and six touchdowns while adding nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Hales said he could see the maturity and growth nearly daily as Ratliff soaked up Ferguson’s every word of advice and constructive criticism.
“Riley taught him a lot through being a three-year starter for us,” Hales said. “(Ferguson) was very good about sharing stuff and about teaching what he’s learned and Anthony wanted to get as much of that as he could.”
It wasn’t just Ferguson that Ratliff was seeking advice from, as the quarterback sought guidance from as many of the senior team leaders as he could in order to prepare for this year.
“The best thing they taught me was effort,” Ratliff said. “No matter if it’s a bad or a good play you have to go out there and give 100 percent effort to be your best. They were great at facing adversity and coming out on top every single time. They were so focused and driven and I picked up a lot on that.
“The other biggest thing they taught me was leadership, of course. Having guys like that who lead us to a state championship, I learned a lot from them.”
So, when Butler trailed Mallard Creek, 14-0, at halftime in Week 2, Ratliff’s drive and leadership were on display. As some players appeared shell-shocked, Ratliff walked the Bulldogs’ sideline with a look of confidence and sheer determination as he waved a towel and implored the visiting Bulldog fans to stand up and support the team.
And, behind Ratliff, Butler played inspired in the second half, battling back to get to within a touchdown before the Mavericks pulled away late.
Instead of getting down, Ratliff used the loss as motivation.
“That loss hurt,” he said. “I went in expecting to win as always and I think some of us just assumed we’d win. It showed us that we have to work for it. We had to get better in a hurry because we had another tough test coming up the next week. Guys had to mature in a hurry and practice had to get a lot more focused right away.
“We had to bounce back from that and we weren’t going to allow one loss to affect all that we want to accomplish.”
The Monday at practice following the loss, Hales said Ratliff was as focused as ever.
“Your best players need to be your hardest workers, and that’s no doubt the case with him,” Hales said. “He’s as hard of a worker as we have.”
Showing no ill effects of Butler’s first loss since November 2011, Ratliff was sensational in Butler’s 56-14 Week 3 win over Greensboro Page – the last team to defeat the Bulldogs prior to Mallard Creek. Ratliff completed 10 of 17 passes for 200 yards and four touchdowns and added 11 carries for 149 yards and two more touchdowns.
It’s his dual-threat capabilities that led North Carolina and Clemson to offer Ratliff a scholarship before his first start. Oregon, Alabama, Georgia and Stanford are among schools also taking notice in the junior, but Ratliff isn’t thinking about what college he will eventually wind up at or what coaches have contacted him recently. While their interest is flattering, it’s not something Ratliff’s concerned with now.
“It was a level of expectations that (the offers) brought to me before I even started the season, but being who I am I like to step up to the plate and exceed people’s expectations,” Ratliff said. “I don’t see that as pressure or anything. When the season started, I didn’t worry about what people were saying or what’s going on in the outside world – it’s just I have to play ball. Playing my game is what got me here in the first place, so that’s all that I could do and that’s all that I’m focused on doing.”
And with Ratliff leading the way, the Bulldogs have a good chance to get where they see themselves going.
“We know we have talent and we have names who want to be heard and want to be known,” Ratliff said. “We’re coming out this season with a chip on our shoulders because we know what we have and we know what we want to do.
“We have three goals left to get: going undefeated in conference, winning a conference championship and winning a state championship.”