A half-hour before Hillside coach Antonio King escorts his football team onto the field for Monday’s practice, offensive players are squeezed into an office in the boys’ locker room.
On adjoining walls two white boards are filled with X’s and O’s connected by jagged arrows. King, arms extended to the arrows, explains how the plays are to work. The attentive athletes have hands on their chins and open notebooks.
“Coach, he’s a visual learner and tries to make us learn the same way,” said Hillside senior wide receiver Daeshawn Stephens, an N.C. State commit.
Third-seeded Hillside (10-2) travels to No. 2 New Hanover (11-2) for a 7:30 p.m. Friday game in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
It’s an intriguing matchup of two teams that suffered early two-game losing streaks but have since won nine in a row. Last week Hillside beat No. 6 seed Hoggard 42-14, while New Hanover edged No. 7 West Johnston, 24-17.
Hillside’s season has overcome only seven returning starters and a roster light on seniors. The Hornets opened avenging a 2014 playoff loss to New Bern, but then lost back-to-back games to two teams still alive in their playoff divisions – Southern Durham (10-3 in the 3AA) and Greensboro Dudley (12-1 in 4A).
“We had too much time with a bye week after we beat New Bern, and we were bragging,” Stephens said. “We lost our focus before the Southern game. Dudley was a good team, but we felt we started to come together.”
The Hornets have outscored their last nine opponents 388-43. The only competitive contest was a 7-3 win for the PAC-6 4A champions over league rival Northern Durham.
One reason for the fireworks has been first-year starting quarterback Chauncey Caldwell, a 6-foot-3, 221-pound junior. After a slow start, Caldwell has connected with Stephens for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Daeshawn and Chauncey have gotten into a rhythm,” King said. “Daeshawn is one of our team captains and was patient. Chauncey has been distributing the ball and Daeshawn is reaping the benefits.”
Stephens’ recent play has attracted recruiting interest despite his July 24 commitment to N.C. State. Rivals.com only ranked him a 2-star when he committed, but apparently other schools now see what N.C. State saw early.
“I’m still solid with N.C. State,” Stephens said. “Coach has been taking those calls. I’m focused on the season. I haven’t talked to anyone.”
One Hillside star who did recently re-open his recruiting is running back Abdul Adams. He had committed to Michigan State before he transferred to Hillside in August from Washington, D.C.
King said Adams, who has rushed for 1,073 yards and 13 touchdowns, was conscious of fitting in and avoiding an interloper tag.
“When he got here, he went out of his way to tell the guys he was coming to their team and he just wanted to be a part of it,” King said. “It’s like he’s been here forever. He carries himself well in the building and with his teammates. He’s a welcome plus.”
Adams, of course, wasn’t around for Hillside’s 2010 state title, but King adds his seniors, juniors and sophomores were seventh, sixth and fifth graders. They know little of the magical season, and he doesn’t try to force-feed them.
More important to the program’s ability to rebuild has been the family atmosphere that regenerates each year.
Players such as James Madison senior quarterback Vad Lee, Navy senior linebacker Myer Krah, Clemson junior safety Korrin Wiggins and Clemson redshirt freshman wide receiver Trevion Thompson return every year in the summer and sometimes off-weeks from college. Krah and Lee established the “All-In Scholarship” three years ago.
“They not only come back here, they’ll do their workouts here,” King said. “They talk to our kids about what it takes. Our kids see them. They understand teaching and learning is how to get there.”
That message isn’t drawn up on King’s whiteboards, but it’s being absorbed.