If Durham Hillside fans had their way, the Hornets would skip regular-season games and head right into the playoffs.
And the Hornets seem almost ready, too.
Hosting Chapel Hill on a hot and sticky night in Russell Blunt Memorial Stadium last week, in front of nearly 300 people, Hillside looked every bit like it was ready open play Friday at New Bern.
“We’re ready,” Hillside junior quarterback Naszir Forte-Ferguson said. “We’ve got great receivers. We’ve got the whole offensive line back and the defense is great, too.
“We’re just eager to see how this season develops and try for a championship.”
For a young player who’s not taken a snap as a varsity starter, Forte-Ferguson is remarkably confident.
“Nas (pronounced Nahhz) is young but he’s got good experience,” Hillside coach Antonio King said. “He led the JVs as a freshman, and he backed up (all-conference quarterback) Cinco Simmons some. …
“And he’s got some grit and always wants to get better. That’s a plus when you’re coaching somebody.”
Forte-Ferguson has some numbers to support his confidence.
Hillside had more than 170 players show up for the preseason’s opening workouts. Among them were 27 lettermen and 18 starters off last year’s 8-3 team. The entire front line – except for conference offensive lineman of the year Javien Knight – is back.
“I was talking with the Hillside coaches at a 7-on-7 game this summer,” Carrboro coach Jason Tudryn said. “I said, ‘Just let me have me your 35th through 40th players and we’d be great this year.’ They’ve got it rolling over there.”
Hillside’s offensive front averages 6-foot-4, 260 pounds. All-conference center Brandon Thompson is back, as well as 6-5, 255-pound Marcus Pettiford.
Hillside graduated all-conference running back Khris Francis, now at North Carolina. But they’ve still got plenty of speed with Donte Thomas Williams (offers from Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame, West Virginia) and Trevion Thompson, an Under Armour All-American who can run out of the backfield but has more interest from the likes of Clemson, N.C. State and North Carolina as a wide receiver.
Hillside’s nine returning starters on defense include PAC-6 defensive lineman of the year Khalen Howard. A 6-2 linebacker/defensive end, he shed 10 pounds in preseason to come in at 220 this season, making him leaner and faster. He’s the mainstay of Hillside’s front seven along with 6-2, 245-pound defensive tackle Teshaun Dawson.
Hillside has its one of its biggest holes at linebacker, where the Hornets graduated Dwight Campbell (N.C. State).
Free safety Kalen McCain, who recently decommitted from Virginia Tech and switched to N.C. State, will help make up for the graduation of all-conference safety Korrin Wiggins (Clemson).
Last year was a downer by Hillside’s standards. Despite rolling undefeated through Piedmont Athletics Conference games for the third straight year, the Hornets lost in the first round of the NCSHAA Class 4A state playoffs.
“If somebody was going to get us, last year was the time to do it,” King said. “This year will be different.”