Durham Hillside is the heavy favorite in PAC Six 4A football, but there is no established hierarchy after the Hornets.
Northern Durham, 6-5 in 2012 after a 6-2 start, could be the league’s next-best team, although the Knights are young and R.J. Wilson has replaced Gary Merrill as coach.
The Knights battled the PAC Six’s top two teams last year, losing to Southern Durham 27-23 before falling to Hillside 24-14. Northern finished third and made its second straight trip to the playoffs, losing to Fayetteville E.E. Smith in the first round 42-14.
It was the Knights’ first winning season since the 2004 team was 8-4 and Wilson hopes to keep the momentum gained last year.
Hillside, Southern and Northern were the only PAC Six teams to post winning records in 2012.
The other four teams combined for 11 wins.
Wilson said Hillside, which has averaged 11.5 wins over the past seven seasons, has earned its respect and is the favorite, but the rest of the league’s teams might be close to each other and to the Hornets.
“For us to contend, we need to limit turnovers, take advantage of turnovers, be strong in the kicking game and not give away yardage with penalties,” he said.
“Those are the same things that all coaches say, but in close games those things make the difference. After Hillside, a lot of teams could be pretty even.”
Wilson is a graduate of Fayetteville Westover and has been an assistant at Northern since 2007. He has researched the Knights’ tradition, which included one losing season between 1963 and 2006, when the program slipped to 1-10.
“When Northern was really good, we were strong on defense and in the kicking game and we were efficient on offense,” Wilson said. “This year, with so much balance in the league, we need to do the little things consistently well.”
The offensive line has to be rebuilt and there is competition between junior Zaaqhai Mann and sophomore Griffin Baker at quarterback in the offense, but Wilson sees reason for optimism.
“We’re replacing a lot of starters, but we have replacements who got significant time last year,” Wilson said. “They didn’t start, but they made big contributions.
“In high school, one of the keys to consistency is having experienced players. We knew last year that we had seniors and we worked at getting younger players into games. We don’t have that many returning starters, but we have a lot of players with quality playing time.”
Alphonso Gbojueh may be the principal runner. Wide receiver Wendell Newkirk and tight end Jalen Nixon are back.
Lineman Kendrick Bailey (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) anchors the defense along with Raquan Riley (6-1, 270).
The linebackers – Atavion Oliver, Mack Fenlon and Isaiah Townsend – are experienced.