It was 10 years ago that Issac Marsh was stopped in the hallway of Chapel Hill High School during summer school with news that would change his life forever.
A member of the athletic staff told Marsh that head football coach Joe Wolfe wouldn’t be returning for the 2004 season. A stunned Marsh, then the JV coach, would replace him temporarily. His first game against Orange was six weeks away.
That temporary role has turned into 10 years of mostly wins, some losses, tragedy, unprecedented playoff success and, most of all, stability.
Longtime Chapel Hill coaches Sherry Norris (girls basketball) and Ron Benson (boys and girls soccer) both opted to retire last spring – each after winning 3-A state championships.
That leaves Marsh as the longest tenured coach at CHHS.
“Being here with Coach Norris and Coach Morris really helped me,” said Marsh. “Seeing how they ran a program and worked with the students, their overall commitment to making their programs successful. That laid the foundation for what I want this team to be this upcoming season.”
Going into last year, Marsh felt his 2013 team was a year away. What he didn’t expect was the Big Eight Conference would transform into the high school football version of the World Cup Soccer Group of Death.
Five Big Eight teams made the playoffs, and Southern Durham went on to win the 3AA state championship. Big Eight runner-up Orange finished 12-2, its only losses coming at Southern Durham (once in the regular season, the other in the third round of the playoffs). In third place was Cardinal Gibbons, which averaged 38 points per game. Northwood finished fourth after twice having Southern Durham on the ropes.
Against that lineup, Chapel Hill finished 4-8, but it easily could have been eight wins instead of eight losses.
The Tigers took Northwood to overtime. They fell victim to a Hail Mary pass by Orange in the final second of regulation to lose 6-0. They led at Cardinal Gibbons going into the fourth quarter. Not to mention the season-opener against Riverside, where the Tigers were stuffed at the goal line on fourth down in overtime to lose 17-14. Yet they still made the playoffs.
Marsh was dealt a pleasant surprise in the offseason: a quarterback battle. Connor Stough transferred from East Chapel Hill High, leading to a competition with 2013 backup Jacob Guskiewicz for the starting job.
“Connor created a quarterback competition, and it has made Jacob better,” said Marsh. “It’s one of those decisions that won’t come down until kickoff on August 22nd (in the season opener at Riverside).”
During an annual scrimmage against Hillside on Wednesday, it was Stough who tossed a late touchdown pass on a fade to Lonnie Baldwin.
“I thought both guys played well tonight,” said Marsh. “I haven’t fully decided (who will start) one way or the other. But I liked what I saw from both men.”
After an inch of rain on Tuesday night, the Chapel Hill scrimmage field was still soggy, which led to a long 90 minutes for both offenses. However, the Tigers’ defensive line held a traditionally strong Hillside running game in check. Neal Duncan, Hudson Price, Brian Jones and Baxter Sobolewski all made tackles for losses, but Marsh is still looking for depth along the front.
“You have guys like Hudson Price and Logan Tisch will have to go both ways,” said Marsh. “We’re trying to limit the amount of snaps those guys have to take on defense so we’re still looking for depth.”
The Big Eight challenge that awaits Chapel Hill isn’t unfamiliar. The goal, as Jim Morrison would put it, is to break on through to the other side – something that CHHS came so close to doing last year. In the deepest conference in the state, one touchdown can be all that separates a champion from a fifth-place team.
“A lot of people forget we were that fifth team that made the playoffs,” said Marsh. “We’re in the hunt, and each night you have to come ready to play.”