The Porter Ridge High School football team concluded its 2011 season with a 42-16 loss to Scotland at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field. It was the team’s first loss of the season, and watching the crestfallen seniors at the time, said defensive end Avery Worsham, has proven indelible.
“That was the toughest part,” said Worsham. “I could barely even look at the seniors after that. I’d think about that every day and just think, ‘I don’t want that to be me.’”
On Friday, Nov. 30, the Pirates have a rare shot at redemption when they face New Bern in the Class 4A finals at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium. The Pirates (13-1) posted a 34-27 come-from-behind victory over North Davidson in last week’s fourth round.
Worsham, now a senior, said he looked skyward and pointed to the heavens in thanks following the win that propelled the Pirates to their second consecutive Class 4A title game.
“I’ve thanked God for everything we’ve had this year because I know it’s been tough,” said Worsham, who has 69 tackles and seven sacks. “A lot of people didn’t think we could do it.”
And for good reason.
Successfully climbing the playoff ladder, especially on the 4A level, is an arduous task, and many of the state’s top teams fall each season before ever reaching a title game. After all, despite its rich history, Union County has enjoyed just one state title: when Forest Hills won the 2A crown in 1984.
But now that the Pirates are back, coach Blair Hardin hopes his team is a little more prepared for all the hoopla that comes with playing on such a big stage. For Hardin, last year’s trip to the title game (his first as a coach) entailed much more than just game-planning, which caught him by surprise.
“Last year, I received so much information about all the logistics leading up to the game – what time to get to rest and how many tickets (we were allotted),” said Hardin with a chuckle. “I just wanted to worry about stopping Scotland and trying to get a few first downs.
“Now, I guess you could say we’re maybe a little better prepared, but we’re not going to do anything different (leading up to the game). I guess it’s just having a better awareness.”
Hardin added that he took some valuable lessons from last year’s loss, things he hopes make a difference this time around.
“You want to enjoy the experience because it goes by really fast, but the biggest thing is doing the simplest things,” Hardin said. “Last year we did some things (in the game) that we’d never done. I think that was immaturity on my part.
“The biggest thing is doing what we’ve done all year to get us here: Just limit mistakes, block and tackle, and I think we’ll be there at the end of the game.”
According to linebacker Nick Vagnone, the returning players also took some lessons from the loss, which he noticed in the locker room following the game.
“While half the team was crying and there were hugs and stuff, the rest of us were looking at each other shaking our heads (in disappointment),” said Vagnone. “I kind of knew we had a real opportunity to be back because we figured out what it took (to get there).”
Of course, after replacing six offensive starters and another three on defense, the program would need to patch some major holes to return to such prominence. Quarterback Lee McNeill, receiver/defensive back Jordan Oakley, receiver Zach Scarboro, running back/defensive back Najee Davis, defensive end Ryan Oldja and linebacker Shane Burns – to name a few – were part of a program-defining senior class that was 3-8 as freshmen.
Hardin acknowledged it was difficult to replace such talent but credited his team’s dedication to his system and a host of promising JV call-ups with helping continue the team’s success.
“This year, with this team, I knew we had youth in a lot of places and experience in others,” Hardin said. “I feel like we’re more athletic and a little bit more talented this year, but we have a lot more experienced players that have been in the system a lot longer.
“I knew if things clicked at the right time with this group that it could be a special group.”
Of course, the cupboard hardly was bare. Running back Chris Duffy has improved on last year’s 1,016-yard effort with a 1,320-yard performance this season. Kicker Matt Wogan reinforced his stature as, arguably, the state’s best kicker with 82 touchbacks on 88 attempts, 62 extra points, an average of 44.17 yards per punt and 10 field goals (including a 58-yarder last week). Marcus Freeman added a steady presence to the receiving corps with 22 catches for 218 yards.
Defensively, linemen Worsham and Ryan Dilworth have led one of the top defensive units around, while Vagnone is again among the team’s leading tacklers.
But it’s the new faces – or familiar faces in new spots – that have made the biggest difference. Wogan added receiving duties to his resume and caught nine passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Vagnone made eight starts at quarterback (while JV call-ups Zach Danielson and Isaiah Hicklin adapted to the varsity level) and recorded a 7-1 record with 893 combined yards and 11 touchdowns.
Luke Bayly, a linebacker last season, converted to defensive end and receiver, and shined in both spots. Offensive linemen Ethan Suzenvich and Pavel Podolskiy added depth on the defensive line, as did new starter Devyn Cunningham.
First-year starting linebacker Austin Moore is tied with Vagnone for the team lead with 93 tackles, while defensive back Nick Widgeon, a reserve, tallied two interceptions in a first-round playoff win over Watauga.
“When I see (those kinds of performances), it lets me know guys aren’t just messing around at practice, they’re not messing around in meetings,” said Duffy. “Guys are paying attention and they’re learning and they’re trying to win this.”
It’s not an unfamiliar trait for Porter Ridge players, as last year’s title appearance suggests. But now, the Pirates are hoping that last year’s experience, coupled with this year’s talented, opportunistic newcomers, will lead to a different result.
“This year has always seemed different to me from all the other years,” said Worsham. “At first, that scared me; I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
“But now I’m starting to feel like it’s a good thing.”