There was a point in the Porter Ridge football team’s 28-21 win over Sun Valley last week when Isaiah Hicklin could have come unraveled. In fact, there were several such instances, including a pair of second-half fumbles by the Pirates’ sophomore quarterback that helped allow Sun Valley to claw its way back into the Class 4A third-round playoff game.
Considering the situation, a bit of freaking out would’ve been justified. After all, it was the playoffs, and it was against rival Sun Valley.
But in the end, the physically gifted player who was expected to continue cutting his teeth on JV this season, again helped lead the Pirates to another playoff win. His statistics were hardly spectacular: 6-for-13 passing for 76 yards and six rushes for 17 yards and a touchdown. But according to coach Blair Hardin, Hicklin did exactly what he needed to do, and that was guide the Pirates’ ship to a win.
“He did have a few turnovers, but he’s the type of kid that will be in (the locker room the next) morning, and he’ll learn from (those turnovers),” Hardin said. “He’s very coachable. He’s done everything I’ve asked, and I’m just real pleased with how he’s held his composure. (Sun Valley) came after him, and he kept his cool.”
Hicklin started the season on JV. The plan was to get him some seasoning with the varsity as the year progressed. In Week 7, he saw his first action, gaining 15 yards on two carries against Parkwood.
As an option quarterback, Hicklin’s speed and decision-making in the run game made him a solid complement to junior passing threat Zach Danielson, who had replaced full-time linebacker Nick Vagnone as the starting quarterback. Two weeks later, against Anson, Hicklin ran for 35 yards and a touchdown in the Pirates’ 55-0 win.
That proved to be Hicklin’s final warmup, as Danielson broke his foot that night. Suddenly, Hicklin was the starting quarterback for Porter Ridge, one of the top contenders for the Class 4A title. Even better, his first start was to come against
Sun Valley in the regular-season finale with the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference title on the line.
It seemed the rest of the team understood Hicklin’s precarious situation, especially the defense that’s allowed a little more than seven points per game. Defensive end Luke Bayly, who’s also a starting receiver, said some of the defensive players pulled Hicklin into the defensive meeting room for a talk.
“We were like, ‘Look, we’ve got your back, all right? You mess up, we’ve got your back,’” Bayly said. “I think that gave him some confidence that he had a defense like us and how we play to back him up.”
The encouragement, it seemed, was perfectly timed.
“That was a huge confidence boost,” Hicklin said. “I was nervous, but I got through it. (My teammates) helped me get through it. It boosted my confidence knowing I have my defense behind my back and I’ve got my whole team behind my back. It gives me a whole bunch of confidence so I can go out there and play with a clear mind.”
The Pirates won the game, 16-0, giving them a piece of their fourth consecutive league title. Hicklin had modest stats – 3-for-6 passing for 54 yards and a touchdown, and just eight rushing yards on six carries – but he expertly commanded the
Pirates’ Option attack, distributing the ball to running backs Jerrick Robbins and Chris Duffy, who combined for 236 rushing yards in the win.
Since then, Hicklin’s taken every snap in the Pirates’ three playoff wins, and Porter Ridge hasn’t seemed to suffer for it. In the playoff opener, the Pirates rolled up 488 yards total offense in a 69-0 win over Watauga, as Hicklin completed 7 of his 11 passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns, and added 57 yards and another touchdown on the ground. The next week, in a 16-6 win over Asheville Reynolds, Hicklin threw for just 62 yards but averaged 10 yards on five carries with a valuable first-half touchdown.
And, of course, there was last week’s win over Sun Valley, which propelled the Pirates to the state semifinal at North Davidson on Friday, Nov. 23. Against the Spartans, the Pirates gained 336 combined yards, including 260 by Duffy and Robbins.
And, perhaps most important, Hicklin recovered to keep his two second-half fumbles from becoming too costly.
“(Many quarterbacks in that position) would’ve fallen apart,” said kicker/receiver Matt Wogan. “But the thing was, it didn’t matter during the next play. He had to (play that way) at a young age. What he did against that good of a defense and that good of a team (like Sun Valley), he stepped up.
“He was our starting JV quarterback, and now he’s playing against that good of a team in the playoffs? That kid, he’s special. It’s all about him doing what he does, and he’s good at it.”
Added Hardin: “He’s smart. In the last four games, he’s seen four different defenses. That’s really tough for a young quarterback, but he’s done a good job of keeping his cool and managing the game.”
Hicklin said there’s still plenty of work to be done. He said he’s working to become a better passer and develop chemistry with his receivers. He’s also had to get used to the speed of the varsity game.
“It’s faster,” Hicklin said. “way faster. That was the biggest thing I had to get used to, and just stepping up and being the leader of this offense.”
But more than anything, Hicklin said he wants to continue to make the most of the chance he’s been given.
“I’m pretty grateful for this opportunity,” Hicklin said. “I worked hard all summer, and I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to step up.”