In the middle of a conference loaded with some of North Carolina’s finest 3A football teams, Chapel Hill seems almost a universal choice among area coaches as a contender in 2014.
Chapel Hill was replete with underclassmen a year ago and took a beating in the league that produced five playoff teams and a state champion in Southern Durham. But the Tigers return 28 lettermen from that 4-8 team and appear to be better overall than in 2013.
“From top to bottom, the talent in the Big Eight is just tremendous,” Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh said recently. “We have our eyes on that prize, too. We think we can do very well.”
Marsh is not alone in that thinking. Northwood’s Bill Hall, whose Chargers have made the playoffs nine straight years, is keeping an eye on the Tigers.
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“Chapel Hill is a true dark horse,” Hall said. “They’re loaded with talent.”
And that’s said before anyone has seen some of the new faces at Culton-Peerman Stadium.
Among the most important of first-year Tigers is quarterback Connor Stough, a junior transfer from East Chapel Hill.
Stough, 6-0, 180, was pegged as a starter from day one at East, having played football since elementary school in the Orange County Pop Warner league. As an eighth-grader, he led Smith Middle School to an undefeated season and an Orange-Person Athletics Conference championship.
“Connor Stough is already polished as a quarterback,” Marsh said. “Leadership comes naturally to him. You can’t coach the things he brings to the table.”
Stough’s presence created an immediate battle for the starter’s spot, a job that seemed destined to go to rising senior Jacob Guskiewicz at the end of last season. He had competed strongly with eventual starter Grant Deselm for the job in 2013 and saw action at quarterback throughout the season.
“Jake Guskiewicz’s confidence level has increased greatly,” Marsh said. “He throws an excellent ball and his reads are faster than last year. He has all the qualities in a quarterback that you want to see.”
Marsh is undecided on a starter.
“We have a really good competition right now for who will be the starter, and we’re looking for good things this season from both of them,” Marsh said.
Whoever takes the snap will be behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters, led by 6-foot-3, 285-pound guard Logan Tisch, a preseason all-state pick by NCPreps.com.
“Logan brings a huge amount of overall energy to the game. He never gets complacent,” Marsh said. “He follows through on every assignment, and he’s very mobile. He’s always looking down the field to get that next block.”
Adding to their allure for college recruiters, Tisch and fellow senior offensive lineman Diego Esparza (5-11, 232) both carry Grade Point Averages better than 4.0.
Juniors Hudson Price (6-2, 250) and George McBurney (6-0, 215), both of whom are top wrestlers for Chapel Hill, add to the Tigers’ clout up front.
Chapel Hill also is deep at receiver.
All-conference tight end Noah Layden is one in the large group that includes seniors Austin Turner and Andy Gillespie and juniors Albert Nyamayaro, Connor Korfas and Harrison Young. Layden doubles as the Tigers’ long-snapper, and Korfas earned all-conference honors last year at safety.
Chapel Hill is just as deep in the backfield, with junior lettermen Ricki McDowell and Lonnie Baldwin at running back and senior Brandon Wendel returning at H-back along with backup Emmett Thorpe.
Chapel Hill has eight starters back on defense, including two-way starters like Tisch, Layden and Malek Jackson (6-1, 250).
“We should be okay on defense, as long as we keep it simple,” Marsh said.