First-year Riverside football head coach Chris Howell played on some outstanding football teams at Greenville Rose and at East Carolina. He believes he is going to coach a great team this year.
“We are going to be better than most people think,” said Howell. “We are going to be better than last year. We are going to work harder and be tougher mentally.”
Howell, an assistant on last year’s 8-4 Riverside club that finished second in the PAC-Six 4A, noted that the Pirates suffered some in 2013 as they fielded a team dominated by underclassmen.
“In the past, we had to play a lot of freshmen and sophomores when other teams were playing junior and seniors,” he said. “Our guys had to fight though that. They got a lot of bumps and bruises, but they learned from it.”
Howell gained from his high school and college days. From Rose’s veteran coach Lonnie Baker, he learned to “never let another team out-work you.” From coach Steve Logan at East Carolina, Howell learned that a team should never get too happy with a single win or too down from a loss. “Keep your eyes on the big goal, don’t get distracted. Stay level-headed and stay focused. Keep chopping wood.”
The Pirates were a run-oriented big-play machine at times in 2013. Joel Evans, who graduated, rushed for almost 2,500 yards.
“We’ll still be a run based offense,” Howell said. “We lost Joel Evans, but we still have a lot of running backs.”
Offensively, quarterback Diante Strothers is dual-threat, and Howell believes he has runners who will surprise. Troy Hill has some experience as a receiver, and Howell expects 160-pound state wrestling champion Jaquon Sowell to make an impact as a running back.
“Our quarterback is back. Most of our wideouts are back. Most of our running backs are back,” Howell stated. “The biggest problem we’re facing is that we need to start over with our offensive line. We lost our top six offensive line five starters and the No. 1 lineman backing them up.”
Riverside scored 37 or more points in six of its last seven regular-season games, including a 63-49 win over a Cleveland club that finished 9-4.
The Pirates defense made such strides that it slowed down Hope Mills South View in a 20-17 first-round playoff loss.
The strength of this year’s team is expected to be its defense. Howell, a former defensive lineman, thinks his front four in a 4-3 alignment are capable of playing college football – “all of them. ... Our defensive line is very special.”
The unit is led by 6-foot-6, 260-pound sophomore Jordan Riley, who is getting scholarship offers. Diante McQuig, a 6-4, 310-pound junior, is being recruited also. Marcus Willoughby, a 6-3, junior and 6-4, 245 Justin Thomas both can be outstanding. Veteran Jawaad Evans helps give the front seven with good depth.
Other returning defensive starters include linebacker Derric Gregory.
Looking from outside, the Pirates, Northern , Jordan, East Chapel Hill and Person all are chasing Hillside, which has won seven of the past eight conference titles and which won the North Carolina 4A state championship in 2010.
“I’m a little tired of the ‘Hillside question.’ ... I really don’t care who Hillside has,” he said. “I am very concerned about our team and our constant improvement.
“If somebody wants to win the title, it has to beat us. Hillside has to beat us. Jordan has to beat us. Northern has to beat us. Person has to beat us. East Chapel Hill has to beat us. We aren’t conceding any game. We aren’t looking at any team and saying it is the favorite to win. All that is to be decided.”