After your best season ever as a high school football team, what’s there to do for an encore?
Winning a conference championship would be nice.
Chapel Hill last last finished atop its conference in 2008, the Tigers’ last year in the 4A classification, when they split the PAC-6 title three ways with Hillside and Southern Durham. (Notably, both Hillside and Southern have won state championships since then, giving a good hint at the level of Chapel Hill’s competition.)
In 2008, Chapel Hill defeated Southern Durham, which in turn beat Hillside, and Hillside defeated Chapel Hill, leaving each of them 6-1 in conference play.
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Chapel Hill has found plenty to cheer about since joining the Big Eight, arguably the state’s toughest 3A conference over the past three years. Last year’s 11-4 finish marked the most wins ever by any Chapel Hill High team and included a 39-28 upset of No. 1-ranked Southern Durham in the third round of the state playoffs.
“That still seems like a surreal moment,” Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh said last week. “That’s going to be a season we’ll always remember. It’s also one that we want to duplicate or even better this year.”
The Tigers have reasons to demand success in 2015. If you can beat the No. 1 team in the state, what does that say about you? It took a team as good as Northern Guilford (16-1), the eventual 3AA champion, to knock Chapel Hill out of the NCHSAA playoffs.
Chapel Hill did exceedingly well at Elon’s annual team camp, where the Tigers went 7-1 in 7v7 contests against some of the region’s top teams.
Chapel Hill graduated some significant players from last year’s team, notably all-conference lineman Logan Tisch (now at Clemson), kicker Connor Albrecht (North Carolina) and wideout Arkavius Parks.
Marsh said the player he may miss most in 2015 would be Noah Layden, Chapel Hill’s most versatile player last year, who signed at up-and-coming Campbell. Layden, 6-5 and 215 pounds, was a receiver, defensive end and did long snaps, one of the most important functions on any football team, even if under-appreciated by most fans.
“Noah did so much for us, so many things,” Marsh said.
But Chapel Hill nonetheless returns most of its starters from last year — eight on defense, led by all-conference safety Connor Korfas, and six on offense.
“We’ve got some excellent players,” Marsh said. “The issue is numbers and depth. As we move forward, we need to find the people who will move into some of the positions we need filled.”
Despite the loss of Tisch, the Tigers’ strength may be up front, where four of the five starting interior linemen return: offensive tackles Neal Duncan and Brian Jones, two-time all-conference center George McBurney and guard Hudson Price. Each is big and beefy, though McBurney weighed in at “just” 215 pounds last year as he was working to stay in his weight class for the ensuing wrestling season.
That line provided excellent protection in most games last year for all-conference quarterback Connor Stough and all-conference running back Ricki Mcdowell, both of whom are expected back for 2015.
Mcdowell rushed for 73 yards a game last year, more than half of the team’s total per game.
Stough, a junior transfer last year from East Chapel Hill, almost immediately mastered Chapel Hill’s offense. He completed 247 of 437 passes (56.5 percent) for 3,177 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions.
Despite losing Parks and Layden, who accounted for 1,372 yards of receptions between them, Stough still gets to throw this year to all-conference receiver Albert Nyamayaro (635 yards last year).
Watching the Tigers in this summer’s 7-on-7 passing contests, Marsh was pleased with what he saw.
“We showed up well and had some really bright moments,” he said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”