Hillside football coach Antonio King says he’s gotten used to “rebuilding years.”
Hillside graduated 24 seniors off last year’s 9-4 PAC-6 4A Conference champions, including its top rusher (Dontae Thomas-Williams) and top receiver (Trevion Thompson). But that’s routine at the western Triangle’s most dominant football program.
“I’m getting accustomed to losing good players every year,” King said. “Player development is a key at Hillside. No matter how good you are, there’s usually a senior ahead of you. When it’s your turn, you need to step up and play.”
And so it goes at Hillside, which hasn’t lost a conference game since 2009, King’s first year as head coach.
“We’ve got some problem areas, but we’ve got players to step in,” King said recently. “We should be starting 16, 17 seniors, and that’s a pretty good thing.
“We’ve got a lot of tough-nose kids who play well start to finish. A lot of people see us as a flashy offensive team, but we really rely on being physical.”
Hillside’s nine returning starters on offense are headlined by senior offensive tackle Emanuel McGirt (6-foot-5, 271 pounds), who’s committed to North Carolina. He’s the biggest name on a big offensive line including Rashawn Henderson (6-2, 230), Marcus Pettiford (6-5, 260), and DaQuan Brown (6-3, 300). McGirt, Brown and Henderson were all-conference picks in 2013.
“The offensive line has been together since they were sophomores,” King said. “That’s 35 games, and that’s a lot of experience in varsity football.”
Hillside’s massive, experienced front provides a comfort zone for returning senior quarterback Nas Forte-Ferguson, who endured growing pains as he learned on the job last year but still ended up an all-conference selection.
Forte-Ferguson will have returning senior running back Requan McCall available for handoffs, plus a number of veterans to target for passes. Senior all PAC-6 wideout Miles Kelly is developing into a leader, King said. Junior Marcus Krah, a medal-winning sprinter and hurdler for Hillside, is one of the fastest receivers in North Carolina. Senior Ray Green is likely to see more passes thrown his way this year.
Hillside has had the most potent offense in the PAC-6 during King’s tenure, averaging 33.4 points a contest since 2009, but the Hornets actually relied more on defense most years. Last year, Hillside gave up just 14.5 points a game, among the lowest marks in the Triangle.
Still, King was not happy with four losses and exiting the playoffs in the second round in 2013.
“We had a good year but not good enough,” he said. “We played well most of the season, but did not do a good enough job finishing.”
Hillside lost significant numbers across its defensive front seven, but again King expects to dip into his deep pool of talent to fill the gaps.
King had 158 players try out on the first day of practice and cutting that to 120 for the Hornets’ first scrimmage at Chapel Hill. Such numbers allow him the luxury of not only platooning his offensive and defensive lines, but also rotating players throughout the game.
Despite graduating seven all-conference players off last year’s defense, Hillside still has three All-PAC-6 selections coming back, senior defensive back Jalon Bethea, linebacker/ defensive end Markus Crutchfield and linebacker Keith Beasley. Senior linebacker Jarrett McCarter and defensive back Chris Williams are two Hornets who could contend for all-conference honors this year.