When you’ve been the top ‘Dog for as long as Butler has been atop the North Carolina football landscape, you get used to dealing with adversity and the naysayers that constantly try to take shots and crack chinks in your armor.
But that goes with the territory of being the state’s most dominating program, and it’s something the Bulldogs have come to embrace. As this week’s showdown with Rocky River approaches, the Bulldogs are treating it like old hat.
“For us, we don’t talk about who we’re playing and what it could possibly mean,” Butler coach Brian Hales said. “If we change our approach based on who we’re playing, then the kids get in the mindset they don’t have to work as hard for this team or that.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re always going to treat everyone the same and work on our execution and making sure our fundamentals are good.”
That focus was especially handy this season. After graduating 31 seniors – including 13 who are now on college football rosters around the country – and returning just six starters, the whispers began that the Bulldogs would be down this season. After two losses in their first four games, those whispers began to get louder.
Still, the Bulldogs never doubted themselves.
“We knew we’d have some bumps here and there,” Hales said. “The big thing for us was keeping the kids who aren’t used to losing that frequently positive and understanding that we would improve if we stayed on the course.”
As they enter the Oct.18 clash, which may ultimately decide the conference championship, Butler feels they’re just coming into form after posting four consecutive wins in convincing fashion. With an ever-improving roster loaded with skill players and guys hoping to make a name for themselves, the Bulldogs are looking to get a leg up in a conference led by a host of newcomers.
One such emerging star is junior receiver Alex Barrow, a West Forsyth transfer, who had to sit out the first three games awaiting the proper paperwork to clear before he could take the field.
“It was hard sitting out those games because I wanted to play,” Barrow said. “I’d done all of the work over the summer and to not be able to play was hard, but it got me ready to go.
“There are a lot of athletes on this team and I worked hard to work my way up and get that starting position. “
Barrow played his first game in Butler’s 21-15 loss to Mount Tabor, a team which used to be Barrow’s biggest rival at West Forsyth. Since the fourth quarter of that game, when Butler scored all 15 of its points, they’ve been showing the promise Barrow first noticed when he stepped on campus this summer.
“The history, the championships and how hard they work, those are the biggest differences of the two schools,” Barrow said. “It’s their swag and how they play – it’s a totally different environment.”
But it’s one Barrow has assimilated himself into very quickly. He’s already taken the team lead with 18 receptions and has 464 yards and six touchdowns through his first five games.
“I just play fast, I think that’s what I do best,” Barrow said. “If I can open up the offense with my speed and spread the defense out, I can help open up the run, which helps out more.”
The Bulldogs’ will need Barrow to do just that against the Ravens, as sophomore running back Benny LeMay will miss the game with a collarbone injury. Freshman Chrisean Davis-Pinkney stepped into his shoes nicely with 210 total yards and three touchdowns against Myers Park on Oct. 11.
But that’s been the Bulldogs mantra during their recent run to championship glory and the biggest reason they won’t get rattled traveling to a hostile environment with the first obstacle to cross to earn the Bulldogs’ seventh Southwestern 4A title.
“We don’t so much talk about who we’re playing, but we want to be the best Butler team we can be,” Hales said. “When we set our team goals, they’re always going to be to win a state championship and win a conference championship.”
To accomplish the latter, Hales knows the importance of this week’s showdown.
“We know with the schedule we have remaining, it’s very much like a conference championship elimination tournament each week,” Hales said. “Our second goal is to win the conference and we feel you have to go undefeated to win it, so we feel like we have to treat this game like a championship game.”
With Barrow adding to what already was a potential-laden offense capable of putting up points in bunches, the Bulldog faithful should feel good their championship pedigree won’t be knocked off course this season.
“He’s a huge shot in the arm,” Hales said of Barrow, who the coach added is starting to generate recruiting interest from ACC schools. “With how fast he is and how consistent he is catching the ball, he’s been a great addition for us.”
With Barrow hitting his stride and Pinkney-Davis stepping in for LeMay, the Bulldog offense is getting into full gear. Junior quarterback Anthony Ratliff leads the team in rushing with nearly 650 yards and has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. Barrow will be flanked at receiver by Jordan Huntley and Austin Varipaapa, a productive wideout who just returned from injury last week.
Louisville recruit Isaac Stewart anchors the middle of the defense, but Jay Gibbs, Clifton Duck, Jalen Cousar, Todjrei Graham and Jarrett Norman all will play big roles in controlling the Ravens’ potent run defense.
But the biggest difference maker for the Bulldogs in this game and throughout the rest of the season and the playoffs is the speedy Barrow, who has already impacted the program with his speed and play-making ability.
Barrow said he’s looking forward to taking the field in the Bulldogs first high-stakes conference game and will be happy to do all that he can to get the Bulldogs their latest conference title.
“These games are big,” Barrow said. “I’ve heard it’s a big rivalry and I know Charlotte football is for real. It’s fun to be part of these games, but our mindset is to win. We want to get this conference championship and go into the playoffs and keep it going.”