Everyone in the Piedmont Athletics Conference knows which game will decide the PAC-6 race this year.
It’s the one game everyone has with Durham Hillside.
“Let’s be realistic. The championship has to go through Hillside,” Roxboro Person head coach David Kleine said last week. “Just look at their numbers, the quality of their players, the quality of their coaching.”
Hillside picked up its 29th straight win against PAC-6 opponents with last year’s 9-4, 5-0 finish.
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Hillside head coach Antonio King has back nine starters back on offense, led by returning quarterback Nas Forte-Ferguson, and seven on defense.
“Hillside has eight to nine kids who will play college football,” said Riverside head coach Chris Howell.”We know most of the athletes in this area want to go to Hillside and Southern (Durham), and they get those kids. That’s just the way it is.”
Hillside’s success not only draws athletes to his program, but also generates motivation, said King. Since he arrived as head coach in 2009, the Hornets have gone 53-12, won five PAC-6 title and a state championship with a 16-0 record in 2010.
“There’s pressure there. We’ve got a winning streak, and no one wants to be the guy who’s responsible for losing that first game,” King said.
Hillside has averaged 33.4 points a contest since King’s first season in 2009, but the Hornets actually relied more on defense. Last year, Hillside gave up just 14.5 points a game.
“A lot of people see us as a flashy offensive team, but we really rely on being physical,” King said. “We’ve got a lot of tough-nosed kids who play well start to finish.”
Offensive tackle Emanuel McGirt (6-foot-5, 271 pounds), who’s committed to North Carolina, is the biggest name on a big offensive line that’s dominated by seniors who’ve played together in 35 varsity games. That includes all-PAC-6 standouts McGirt, Rashawn Henderson (6-2, 230) and DaQuan Brown (6-3, 300), plus senior Marcus Pettiford (6-5, 260).
Despite graduating seven all-conference defenders last spring, Hillside still has three All-PAC-6 selections coming back: senior defensive back Jalon Bethea, linebacker/ defensive end Markus Crutchfield and linebacker Keith Beasley.
Hillside’s strengths turn the PAC-6 into a race for the remaining playoff spots, said Kleine, and he’d like to see Roxboro’s Rockets in the mix along with Northern Durham and Durham Riverside.
Riverside isn’t conceding anything, said Howell. The Pirates (8-4, 4-1) were the only other PAC-6 team to finish last year with a winning record, and they’re the only other PAC-6 team to play for a state championship in the 21st century.
Howell said he’s “tired” of hearing about Hillside.
“Yes, they’re favored to beat everyone again. They’re better than sliced bread. They’ve got a zillion athletes who are all going to play in college,” Howell said. “I don’t care. We’re not scared of them. We’re going to challenge every team in this conference.”
Riverside must replace all-conference running back Joel Evans, who graduated after rushing for more than 2,400 yards last year, but have quarterback Dianté Strothers returning. The Pirates also have a veteran defensive line that averages 263 pounds a player. “Everyone of them will end up playing in college,” said Howell.
Northern (3-9, 3-2) looks poised to surprise some teams. The Knights started off 0-6 last season under first-year coach R.J. Wilson, facing six playoff teams that included Millbrook, Wakefield and two state champions in Southern Durham and Greensboro Dudley. But the Knights finished 3-2 in conference play as they developed their defense.
The Knights got an unexpected arrival with the transfer of former Person quarterback Trevon Tapp, who accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards and 23 of Person’s 33 touchdowns last year. Northern listed him as a cornerback, but he could play almost anywhere on the field.
Without Tapp, Person (3-8, 1-4) will press junior Antonio Williams into service at quarterback. He’ll look to connect with all-conference wideout Corey Young or hand off to all-conference running back Taymon Smith.
East Chapel Hill (3-8, 2-3) and first-year head coach Mike Holderman were dealt blows before preseason workouts began: all-conference receiver Arkavious Parks and quarterback Connor Stough transfered to arch-rival Chapel Hill, and QB Sean Moore opted to concentrate on club baseball. Sophomore Brater Gerber is learning on the job at QB. Kicker Ellis Lewellyn returns after earning all-PAC-6 honorable mention.
In his second year at Jordan (1-10, 0-5) LeDwaun Harrison actually is the PAC-6’s most experienced head coach after Hillside’s King. Decimated by graduations, the Falcons will need to find several new backs and receivers, not to mention offensive linemen to help returning quarterback Matt Gampe.