High School Football

Northwestern ruthless the last four years against underdogs

The so-called 93 room at Northwestern will be redecorated following the season.

At present, it’s a standard room out of use, littered with random computers and a whiteboard, windows covered. There is one piece of very modern technology, a video board used every Monday during a 10-minute meeting that’s one of the big reasons behind the Trojans football team’s consistent success against teams it should beat.

In the “93 room,” named after the school’s 1993 state title team that beat Gaffney 2-0 in the final, Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson and his staff get the team focused for the upcoming week. A 10-minute meeting in the windowless room is where each week’s “four-wall focus” is newly established.

“The biggest thing is we try to get our kids to focus on nothing but what’s inside the four walls,” Richardson said Thursday morning. “That’s a message that’s reiterated, that it’s about the people that are within these four walls. Only players and coaches are allowed. And it always ends with that; it’s about us.”

The Trojans take that laser-like concentration on getting a win into District Three Stadium on Friday night for a rare away game at the venerable city stadium, also their home patch. Northwestern faces Rock Hill for the 51st time in a rivalry that could really use an upset.

Once Football City USA’s premier (and only) rivalry, the matchup has gone off the boil in recent years as the Bearcats struggled and Northwestern thrived. Blame whatever for Rock Hill’s decline – the opening of South Pointe, a school zoning map resembling a plate of spaghetti, lack of talent, coaching, flaky kids and parents, or whatever else folks attribute Rock Hill’s lack of success to – but the rivalry has undoubtedly lost its luster in the last couple of years.

The media can try to pump it back up, but long gone are the days of 10,000-plus packing District Three Stadium to see Jim Ringer and Jimmy Wallace’s football teams engage in a field goal-decided, slug-fest full of neck protectors, I formations and legendary endings that marinate and grow and enhance in the city’s oral history. Northwestern’s robotic ruthlessness is one big reason for the rivalry’s decline.

“It’s a testament to this staff,” said Richardson, citing his 15 full-time or volunteer assistant coaches. “They never overlook an opponent. Got a great coaching staff; every Sunday that they come to work, they put the previous game behind them and move on.”

Northwestern has won eight of nine in the Rock Hill rivalry, with last year’s 29-20 victory in a rain-soaked contest the second closest game during the last 10 years. Rarely do Richardson’s Trojans lose to lesser teams. Since he took over in 2011, Northwestern has played roughly 45 games in which it would have been considered the favorite; the Trojans have lost two of those – in 2011 to a decent Lancaster team and last fall in the regular season finale against Gaffney.

That loss at The Reservation underscored the importance of not slipping up in region play. Instead of playing in the upper half of the Big 16 bracket, Northwestern was consigned to the lower half, alongside Dorman, Dutch Fork, and of course, Byrnes, which ended the Trojans’ season in the second round.

Richardson’s influences derive from a variety of sources. Richardson played for Phil Tate at South Point High School, in Belmont, N.C., and has gleaned intricacies of the business from assisting Jimmy Wallace, as well as clinics and visits with college and pro coaches. Even business leadership seminars are sources of learning not just plays, but how to handle teenagers.

“What can we do mentally, on and off the field, to take our guys to another level?” he asked. “The longer I stay as the head coach, I’m spending more time in the offseason trying to figure out how to get in the brains of our players.”

Richardson loves catch phrases and one of his other favorites is “Win Today.” That mantra is meant to keep players from dwelling on the past or being saddled with the expectation of the program’s traditional success, as well as from looking too far ahead and losing sight of the immediate task.

All of that is easier to do when a coach has talent and tradition on his side, and any coach at Northwestern has those things in abundance. This year is no exception. Since a season-opening loss to Byrnes, the Trojans have rattled off eight straight wins, averaging just shy of 50 points per outing.

The scenery isn’t as rosy at Rock Hill, already consigned to its fifth straight losing season, tying the longest such run in the school’s football history. Where Richardson took over from Jimmy Wallace following a 15-0 state championship season, Bearcats coach Bubba Pittman – a former assistant to Richardson at Northwestern – inherited a program that had won 15 games in the previous four seasons.

Pittman’s first head coaching job has been like pushing a rock up a hill. He’s confronted daily with the success of the two noisy neighbor schools, which have combined for five state championships since Rock Hill’s last, in 2004. South Pointe has beaten Rock Hill six straight times, and a win Friday for Northwestern would give it six straight victories against the Bearcats.

Any Trojan victory over Pittman’s team Friday night will trace its genesis to the 93 room. There is also an 89 room, Wallace’s former office, named for the team he led to the school’s first state title. Richardson joked Thursday that the 2010 and 2013 teams are – to this point – out of luck as far as having a room named in their honor.

He unconsciously underscored one of the truths of sports: it’s so much easier to maintain focus when a team is winning.

Bret McCormick: 803-329-4032, @RHHerald_Preps

Friday’s games

Northwestern at Rock Hill

Clover at Nation Ford

Gaffney at Fort Mill

Union County at Chester

Broome at Lancaster

Clinton at South Pointe

Andrew Jackson at Indian Land

Great Falls at Lewisville

*Games start at 7:30 p.m.

Winning the ones they’re supposed to

Based on an unscientific approach to determining whether Northwestern was favored heading into a game (South Pointe, Gaffney and Byrnes games were almost always removed from that category just because those series have either been very close or not in Northwestern’s favor), the Trojans have played 45 or 46 games under Kyle Richardson (out of total of 65) in which they were the favorite to win. They’ve lost two or three of those, the season-opening loss to Charlotte Catholic last year the game that could go either way.