Butler coach Brian Hales knew there would be some growing pains associated with this year’s squad after graduating 31 seniors from last year’s undefeated state championship football team. But neither he nor his players were ready to use the exodus of talented personnel as an excuse in their Class 4AA state title defense – no matter what challenges this season brought.
With an undefeated march to last year’s state title and a 74-6 record since 2006, it’s understandable why out-of-conference teams want no part of the Bulldogs. So, in order to fill out his schedule, Hales turned to some heavy hitters, knowing it would only make the Bulldogs better in the long run.
In what’s becoming one of the state’s best and most anticipated annual meeting, Butler traveled to nationally ranked Mallard Creek in the Bulldogs’ second game. Knowing what his team faced – and what ultimately would make the young Bulldogs more playoff-ready than playing lesser competition – Hales wasn’t in despair following the 20-7 loss to Mallard Creek, even though it was their first defeat in more than a calendar year.
In fact, Hales was far from gloom – he was enthusiastic.
“I am so excited about this team,” Hales said with a smile while standing on Mallard Creek’s field on Aug. 30. “I’m pumped about where we are right now and I see so much promise in (this) group.”
Fast-forward nearly a month and the promise is still on display – perhaps now more than ever.
Sure, the Bulldogs (4-2) had dropped to 2-2 after being edged by Mount Tabor on the road in a 21-15 game that saw them storm back from a three-touchdown fourth quarter deficit. But, despite the fact Butler hasn’t lost as many as three games in a season since 2007, Hales was again stoked following the loss. The Bulldogs were about to end a tough four-game stretch against three schools who, along with Butler, appear sure to contend for a state title.
But Butler showed the type of resolve Hales has been waiting on as they traveled to undefeated Richmond County in their always-raucous stadium.
“I told the kids it’s just like you’re in school when you don’t do well on a test,” Hales said. “If you get the chance to take the same test over, you’re going to do better. We got an opportunity to take the same test over. We went on a one and a half to two-hour bus ride, into a tough environment against a good team.
“The way they responded was exactly what I was looking for. With this group that has so much inexperience, when you make one mistake it tends to snowball. They play so much on emotion when they are that inexperienced that once things started to go well, we were off and running.”
And Hales believes the Bulldogs’ emphatic 49-32 win over Richmond is exactly what his team, and especially the defense, needed to get going.
“That four-game stretch could’ve been anything from 0-4 to 4-0. We went 2-2 and with those losses the way they were – non-competitive on offense for three quarters,” Hales paused before smiling. “We’re right where I want to be right now going into the conference season.”
When the Bulldogs opened conference play with a 68-0 mauling of Garinger on Sept. 27, they left little doubt they’re ready to vie for their fifth consecutive Southwestern 4A crown.
“We’re a young team and we’re only going to continue to get better and grow into a much better team as the year goes on,” said junior linebacker Jarrett Norman. “The key for us is to play our game. We have to play Butler football and not play anybody else’s game – we play our game, which is state championship football. That’s how it’s going to be around here.”
Norman is one of a number of talented Butler defenders set on returning the Bulldogs to their traditional stingy defensive ways while making a name for themselves, as many are first-year starters.
Junior linebacker Jay Gibbs is returning to the gridiron after playing at Mint Hill Middle but foregoing varsity football in favor of basketball. This season, with nearly 10 tackles a game, Gibbs is helping anchor a defense that’s traditionally one of the state’s stingiest.
“Jay’s almost symbolic of who we are as a team,” Hales said. “If you watch the games sequentially, you see obvious improvement and this (No. 34) is getting better and better. He’s bought in lock, stock and barrel and he loves playing football.”
That sort of improvement has been contagious to the Butler defense.
Senior Todjrei Graham was fifth on last season’s state championship team with 80 tackles, and leads this year’s unit with 65 through six games.
“We want to keep dominating like we always have,” Graham said. “We want to keep it going to how Butler football usually is and we want to win the title. With us being so young, it would be great for us. I think it would shock everybody in the whole state.”
Another holdover from last year, defensive end Jalen Cousar – who topped last season’s impenetrable defense with 11 sacks and added 79 tackles – said he’s seen the necessary improvement to get the Bulldogs in contention for a conference and state title defense.
“We learned that we have to work harder, no matter what,” Cousar said. “This year has been really different. At the start of the season, we needed to communicate better so that everybody was on the same page and we’ve done that. Early on, we had to improve everything, but now we’re getting better and if you miss a tackle or something you know somebody else is going to be there.”
With the Bulldogs’ defense coming into form, Hales said his offense is taking similar shape. First-year starting quarterback Anthony Ratliff is getting more comfortable each day. Sophomore running back Benny LeMay is proving more than capable of carrying the Butler ground game and receiver Alex Barrow just played his third game after waiting to be officially cleared following his transfer from West Forsyth this summer.
As the offense gels and the ever-improving defense continues to emerge, Hales can sit and watch the team’s promise with admiration.
“I think the kids are confident now and they see that we’re a really good team, but they know they can’t (just) show up and play well. They have to focus and play hard every down,” he said. “The work ethic on these guys is so enjoyable, that’s why I’m loving this team. I told them I played nine years in high school and college, I’ve been coaching 14 now, so this is my 24th football team and this is the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m excited for this team and think we’re where we want to be.”
The players echo Hales’ sentiment and have unified to prove that, to win a conference or state championship, the road still goes through Bulldog country.
“We have a long way to go this year and we’re going to be in the hunt,” Norman said. “We have a lot of guys who can play and we’re not going to let losing 13 seniors be the downfall of our team. We’re going to step up.
“Our goals (haven’t) changed, we’re going to be out here working hard and working to improve our game and get better each day. We want to bring home another championship and we have the guys to do it.”