RAEFORD — The Southeastern Conference hosted its annual media day on Sunday, and Scotland High School was picked to continue its dominance of the 4A league.
The Scots, winners of four straight conference titles, received all eight first-place votes in the media poll and five in the coaches poll as coaches and players from each of the six teams gathered at Bayonet Golf Course at Puppy Creek.
Richard Bailey’s squad is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Sophomore Zamir “Zeus” White leads the Scotland offense out of the backfield as one of the best backs in the nation, drawing offers from college football powers like Ohio State, Florida State and Clemson. Jonathan Smith, senior linebacker and reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, anchors a strong defense. Smith also has a plethora of Division I offers, including North Carolina, Duke and Michigan.
Scotland is ranked as the No. 2 4A team in the state in the CarolinaPreps.com preseason football rankings. Pinecrest, who earned second place in both polls on Sunday, is listed at No. 15.
Richmond was selected to finish third under new coach Mike Castellano, with Lumberton following in fourth. Hoke and Purnell Swett rounded out the preseason poll rankings in fifth and sixth.
The Pirates were represented by a pair of senior linemen, Monteris Cromartie and Pete Townsend. Cromartie, a leader on the defensive line, enjoys playing in the tough conference.
“It’s fun,” he said. “With all the talent, you have to play your best to win. You can’t sleep on anyone in this conference.”
Townsend, who anchors one of the strongest offensive lines in the conference, is confident in his team’s chances heading into his senior campaign despite a new face in the backfield.
“We feel like we can compete with anyone in the conference,” Townsend said. “We lost (running back) Josh (Sheridan), but Troy (Mitchell) is going to be good. We’re playing against the best week after week in our conference. By the time you get to the playoffs, you’re not going to see anyone that’s that much better than what you’ve already played against.”
Mike Setzer, who begins his second season as the head man on the sidelines for the Pirates, compared the conference to the league that shares the same name in college football
“I like the fact that we’re called the SEC,” Setzer said. “It makes us almost mirror the big SEC (in college football). There’s really no week off in this conference. You have to do your homework on these coaches. I wouldn’t want to be in any other conference. It’s exciting. You get the best athletes, the most innovative coaches. They’re constantly changing.”
Lucas Oxendine will experience playing in the conference for the first time when he suits up for Purnell Swett this season.
The sophomore quarterback is excited about competing against some of the best teams in the state.
“It’s a lot more competition and it makes everyone in the conference better,” Oxendine said. “I believe that’s why it’s one of the toughest conferences in the state.”
Luke Brooks is expected to be a leader on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams this season. The senior cornerback’s focus at the moment is on preparing a large group of young guys for the grueling schedule.
“We have a lot more participation heading into this season,” Brooks said. “A lot of these young guys played jayvee, so I’m just trying to prepare them for the next level competing against guys that are faster, stronger and more experienced. There are a lot of great teams in this conference. It makes it fun because you’re playing against the best. But right now, we’re just worried about us.”
Jon Sherman begins his first season as head coach of the Rams, but he’s no stranger to the SEC. Sherman spent some time as an assistant under Bailey at Scotland. But like Brooks, Sherman is focused on seeing his guys getting better.
“Going through what we’ve done, I’ve seen a lot of commitment,” Sherman said. “Kids are working hard and the excitement is there. We’re getting there.”
As for battling in the SEC as a head coach, Sherman relishes that chance.
“It’s exciting to be around these coaches and players,” he said. “To be able to compete as a coach in this conference, showing the skills our kids have, I’m excited about it. A little nervous, but excited.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.