Brandon Hodge: The Scots left a lot on the table in their playoff loss

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Nov. 21—LAURINBURG — With many people celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, tables will be filled with food from turkey and yams to cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. And, for me, one of the best parts about Thanksgiving is the leftovers. Not many food items are better-tasting than the ones I get to warm up on the day(s) following Thanksgiving.

The Scotland Fighting Scots football team can be compared in ways to Thanksgiving, with the fact that it feels like they left so much on the table last Friday night.

Suffering a 45-44 loss to Northern Nash in the third round of the 3A state playoffs, it's easy to blame the defense, which allowed 44 points, the special teams, with the missed field goal and extra point in the fourth quarter, or the offense, which didn't get in the end zone on the final drive. The fact of the matter is it was a team effort, and no one player or one position group lost the game.

But that doesn't mean the loss wasn't a disappointing one.

"I hate that we didn't win Friday night, but I do know that we were still one of the best five or six teams in the east," Scotland head coach Richard Bailey said. "And when you get to where we were at, the margins are slim. And unfortunately, (we) didn't play well enough to win Friday night as a team. But again, we had a great year, and sometimes you've just got to tip your hat to your opponents.

"Hopefully, we'll improve more next year. It all starts in the offseason in the weight room and (with) the kids willing to put in the work that it takes. But I am proud of our kids, what they accomplished. This has been a really good senior class to work with. They're a bunch of good kids that are hopefully going to go off and do some great things. And sometimes it's more than just wins, losses; it's about some kids (that) really grew up. I saw a lot of growth in our kids character-wise as the season went on."

The way Scotland lost in the playoffs was saddening to witness — on a final-play heartbreaker in back-to-back seasons after last year's Hail Mary by Terry Sanford — but that doesn't mean the season was a letdown. I remember Bailey talking to me for one of my game-preview interviews, and he described how difficult winning 10 games is in a season and how people will take advantage of that.

Well, he's right.

Not many coaches can say they've helped lead a team to at least 10 wins in nine of the last 12 seasons (excluding the 2020-21 COVID-19 season).

Bailey can, though.

"There's always a tendency, (if) you don't win the conference championship or you don't go win a state championship, that somehow it's been a failure," Bailey said. "But winning 10 (games) is an accomplishment. To be one of the final 16 teams playing in the state in 3A is something to be proud of."

Expectations were higher than making the third round for this team, and I thought they had the talent to make it to the state title game.

Having a running back in Zay Jones, who finished as the SAC's Offensive Player of the Year with 2,680 rushing yards and 43 total touchdowns (one receiving) — both top-20 nationally according to MaxPreps as of Tuesday morning — and with All-SAC honorees, quarterback Ji'San McPhatter (1,715 passing yards, 16 TDs, two interceptions for the season) and wide receiver Quatavius Everette (41 receptions, 755 yards, eight TDs), it seemed as if the Scots could score at-will in most games.

"Offensively, we had a tremendous year," Bailey said.

On defense, Scotland was inconsistent and had an up-and-down year. But they did show flashes and had the talent and size to compete.

"Defensively, we improved, we really did," Bailey said. "We improved in almost every statistical measure over last year to this year. But obviously, that's where we've still got to get better. Two years in a row, we scored over 40 points in a playoff game and lost, and that just can't happen.

"In Scotland County, we ain't getting no move-ins, man. We've got to develop the ones we have, and we've got to find ways to improve the ones we have. And we've got to continue to figure out defensively how to improve on that side of the ball with the ones we have. Because, again, nobody's moving in, or at least I haven't heard of anybody. So, we've got to figure it out with who we got."

The Scots' schedule was weaker than initially thought. But in the playoffs, they seem to perform at a higher level. That was the case again this year, going toe-to-toe with a one-loss Northern Nash team that was the 3A state runner-up last year.

In 2024, Scotland will look to outdo its third-round finish this season. But that will be easier said than done. While McPhatter, Everette, and WR Dajuan Gibson will be back, Jones will be graduated.

But even more concerning for Bailey is that offensive linemen Darreus McDougald, Jake Clemmons, Jaedyn Millisock, and Thomas Taylor will be, too.

"A lot of our success is built around the strength of our offensive line, and we're missing four out of those five (next year)," Bailey said. "And it's easy to say you're just going to plug people in, but it's not that easy, especially at that position."

The Scots closed the season with 38.4 points per game on offense and an average of 23.2 points allowed on defense.