Porter Ridge (8-0) at Weddington (8-0) – 7 p.m.
Last year’s Pirates-Warriors game was good, but stakes even higher this season
(Above:)Brothers Blair (left, center ) and Justin (right, center) Hardin will face off on Oct. 22 in the second-annual Hardin Bowl. Blair is pictured with Porter Ridge players (from left) Jordan Van Beek, Desmond Gillis, Alex Holt and Jordan Oakley. Justin is pictured with Weddington players (from left) Zack Davis, Brandon Kersnowski, Drew Podrebarac and Jake Yurek.
by Aaron Garcia
In many ways, twin brothers Justin and Blair Hardin got this out of the way last year.
In 2009, Justin was the first-year coach of the upstart Weddington High School football team, which entered its game with Porter Ridge with a 4-4 record after having gone 0-11 the year before. Blair’s Pirates were 6-2 and already imagining their first-ever Class 4A playoff berth.
The novelty of facing each other from opposite sidelines for the first time, as head coaches or otherwise, quickly evaporated when the game began. In the end, Weddington won one of the county’s most exciting games of the year, 31-24.
But this year is a bit different.
On Friday, Oct. 22, Weddington and Porter Ridge will each take unblemished 8-0 records to a clash that could go a long way in determining who winds up atop the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference’s final standings. Currently, the two programs are tied with Sun Valley at 2-0 in conference play with only three weeks remaining in the regular season.
This game is more than just a nice story about a sibling rivalry. Now, a possible conference title is on the line.
“Obviously, each of the next three games will decide things, but this one is big,” said Blair.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the rivalry, the game’s importance isn’t lost on the players, either.
“To win this conference outright, you can’t lose,” said Weddington senior linebacker Zack Davis. “You’re going to have to run the table to win this conference. A win is the only option.”
Added Warriors receiver Jake Yurek: “Coach Hardin and his brother, Blair, have both completely changed the culture and the way their programs have been here in Union County. I know both teams want to win the conference outright, so it’s a big deal.”
Win one for Coach Hardin
As fans noticed last year, intensity always will be a characteristic of this series. It’s a mind-set each coach brings from their shared upbringing. Being twins, the two always have been close: They played football together in high school and both matriculated from playing with their dad, Bruce, at Kannapolis A.L. Brown to The Citadel, where Justin was the quarterback and Blair played receiver. After serving as an assistant at several Charlotte-area schools, each is serving in his first head-coaching role; Blair was hired three years ago to take over a Porter Ridge program with just four wins in its three-year history, while Justin was hired two years ago at Weddington and inherited the 0-11 team.
The fact that neither coach has wasted time producing competitive teams has motivated the players to reward their coach with a win on Friday night.
“We’ve come a long way since my younger years,” said Porter Ridge senior captain Desmond Gillis. “Coach Hardin wasn’t here until my sophomore year, and he came in and changed the tradition.”
Added Pirates senior receiver Jordan Van Beek: “We play for our coach anyways, but this (game) is extra motivation. (Our coach) played receiver, so he got the short end of the stick on the spotlight in high school, so we’re trying to let him get back at his brother, I guess.”
The motivation varies slightly across Hwy. 74, but the pressure to reward their coach with a win is comparable, said Warriors tackle Brandon Kersnowski.
“A couple of years ago, we were at the bottom of the bottom, but Coach Hardin came in and showed us how to win and how to play faster,” said Kersnowski, a senior lineman who has committed to Furman. “It’s changed my life. Being in the situation to make him proud makes me happy. He’s easy to play for – he’s fun to play for. You know he’s been to the next level, so if he’s telling us something to do, we know it’s good coaching because he’s been there before and he knows what it takes.
“That gives us a little more fire that we want to keep it going for him. I know if I had a brother coaching against me, I wouldn’t want to lose to him. I know we want to win this one for Coach Hardin more than anything.”
Added Warriors quarterback Drew Podrebarac: “(Our coach is) the reason we’re (undefeated). It’s not OK to lose out here anymore. It’s not an option, and that’s all him.”
While neither Hardin spends much time regaling his players with tales of games past or trumping up the rivalry because of the opposing coach, the players from both sides have noticed a little extra pep in their coach’s step this week.
“There’s a lot more fire,” said Pirates lineman Alex Holt. “He talked to me personally last year, and he told me he didn’t like losing to Weddington. He said he hated it, so that’s why this week’s been intense.”
“It’s a bigger game for Coach Hardin – I know he doesn’t say it, but I know it is,” said Weddington’s Kersnowski. “For us, we all got together and said we were going to win this one for Coach Hardin, so we’ve been getting after it a lot in practice (this week).”
It’s one thing to face your brother and all his familiar tendencies, but it’s another to prepare for such a game when your counterpart lives down the hall.
This summer, the Hardin brothers decided to move into a house together, which has made the week leading up to their game a series of smokescreens and misinformation. Take, for example, when Justin was talking to an assistant coach over the phone this week.
“He couldn’t say, ‘Outside zone’ – he had to use (Weddington’s) code for it,” Blair said with a chuckle. “He’s been code-talking all week in the house.”
Or the time when Justin’s game plan was essentially laid out on their kitchen table when Blair got home from practice. As a result, there are guidelines: If Blair’s watching game film in his room, Justin can’t come in, and vice versa. And if either coach has a question about the other’s preparation, he can feel free to ask. But don’t expect a straight answer.
“I told him that we were going to run a Wing-T with double tight (ends) and (Porter Ridge running back Javonte) Truesdale was going to be our quarterback,” Blair said with a grin.
“No one ever talked about it, but we knew there might be some awkwardness coming this week, but now it makes it more awkward that we’re both undefeated,” said Justin.
Reality sinks in
Both men said they never envisioned this kind of game as both began their coaching careers. An undefeated matchup wasn’t on either coach’s radar, given the rebuilding task each initially faced.
The game itself was a certainty before the schedule even was released. But as the game neared, the idea of both teams entering the showdown undefeated started to look like a reality.
“I never thought about it (before that),” said Blair. “This year, knowing our conference schedules, when we both got to 5-0, I thought we had a chance to be 8-0 and face each other.
“That doesn’t happen very much – brothers playing each other like that, especially in conference.”
For Justin, he first realized it was a possibility sometime last week when eating dinner with his dad, who’s the coach at Charlotte’s Providence Day School.
“It would be a great story to both be undefeated and playing each other in the middle in a conference championship run,” Justin recalled telling his dad.
“We laughed about it (then). But now, here it is.”