Butler, 8-2, appears poised to make a deep playoff run this season
Butler began the season with some question marks after losing 21 seniors – many of whom were multiple-year starters – and a tough loss at unbeaten Mallard Creek.
Due to scheduling issues – namely it’s hard for the Bulldogs to find early season opponents willing to play them – they had a weird start to the season with two byes in three weeks.
And after the young Bulldogs pulled out narrow wins at Richmond and against Providence, who the Bulldogs beat by one point at home, there were some whispers that this could be the year to knock off the mighty Bulldogs, who had won five conference titles in coach Brian Hales’ six seasons at the helm.
But that hasn’t been the case at all.
After their interesting start, though, the Bulldogs have been mostly dominant aside from a 43-42 loss to Hickory Ridge on the game’s final play. After Porter Ridge beat Hickory Ridge the following week, Butler won its sixth conference title under Hales and got a first round bye. Hales said the bye came at a great time.
“I think a bye is beneficial,” he said. “We had that crazy start to the schedule with those two byes, and we had a little trouble getting in rhythm. We eventually did, but then we were at it for eight or nine weeks in a row so the bye was good for us.”
The Bulldogs are much younger than they’ve been in years past, but they have also been coming together nicely as they host Myers Park in the second round of the NCHSAA 4-AA playoffs on Nov. 17.
Myers Park has had another outstanding season as they’ve gone 22-3 over the past two years. Two of those losses have come at the hands of the Bulldogs, including a 28-7 beating in early October.
Now, as the two set for a rematch, the Bulldogs are in their element as they’ve gone 14-5 under Hales in the playoffs and seemingly have the Mustangs number.
“The bye helped us get as close as anybody as far as health goes,” Hales said. “We’re going to continue to approach everything like we always do with the same routines and everything else, but maybe the only thing is we’re going to make our kids really aware that they’ve got the revenge factor on their side. Everyone always talks about how it’s hard to beat a good team twice this time of year and it is tough.
“But I think we’ve improved a great deal since the first time we played them, but we’re far, far from where we can be. Really, we’re just looking to try to improve and ideally that gives us a win along the way this week.”
One of the Bulldogs’ biggest improvements will be getting running back Nijere Peoples back. He was injured on the first play of the Myers Park game the first time the teams met and missed three games with a sprained ankle before returning two weeks ago against East Meck.
Peoples is the team’s second-leading rusher (124 carries, 787 yards and 10 touchdowns), but in his absence, sophomore backs Jamal Worthy (125 rushes, 794 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Quasean Holmes (50 carries, 312 yards and six touchdowns) have flourished and carried the load.
WIth Peoples back the run game that is already averaging 237.8 yards per game is stronger than ever.
“Nijere is back and 100 percent,” Hales said. “It’s outstanding because when he was out it gave more reps to Quasean and Jamal, and with them being 10th-graders, every rep is helping them get better. It was an opportunity for them to get a ton of reps, which will be important in November and hopefully December. When Nijere hurt his ankle, that gives him a little time to rest, too, so it was good for everyone.”
Holmes and Worthy are not the only underclassmen who have emerged as the season has gone on.
Junior quarterback Christian Peters began the year leading an offense that averaged 17.3 points per game through its first four contests. Since, Peters and the Bulldogs have put up 43.3 points per contest and are looking a lot more like a traditional high-powered Butler offense.
“We don’t have the easiest offense for a quarterback to navigate, and he had to play in those first two really tough games as a new starter,” Hales said. “Since then we’ve been giving him a little bit more at a time and he’s certainly been doing his part with his preparation, studying and work ethic. If there’s a kid that’s improved more from Week 1 to now, I’d love to see it because he’s been great.”
Peters has thrown for 1,195 yards and 10 touchdowns, but more importantly has turned the ball over just twice.
He’s also operating behind an offensive line that features sophomore tackles Trey Richburg and Anthony Carter and freshman guard Leo Arredondo who have started most of the year and have continued to improve.
With an improved and deeper running game and ever-improving quarterback and line play, the Bulldogs have gotten Keyon Lesane (34 catches, 619 receiving yards and five touchdowns) and TJ Cusick (12 receptions, 265 yards, TD) going offensively.
With all of the pieces coming together, Hales knows his team is still looking to hit its stride, but is much better than the team that dominated Myers Park with 28 unanswered points and a relenting run game in their first meeting.
Even more, the Bulldogs have won at least 10 games every year since 2005, a streak they can keep alive with a win over Myers Park and their potential third-round opponent which would be the winner of Hough and West Forsyth.
“We’re more balanced than when we played them the first time for sure,” Hales said. “It’s not just the quarterback, but getting guys like Cusick on offense, getting Jamal and Quasean more involved and it’s really been on opportunity for everyone to grow at the same time. We still start two sophomores and a freshman on the O-line, so the longer it goes, the better we’re going to get. We want to be playing into December.”