Pirates expect to keep it going
Greg Neuendorf bit off a lot when he replaced Blair Hardin as the head football coach at Porter Ridge.
Hardin is a tough act to follow after leaving an indelible mark on the program in his five years.
Hardin averaged 13.3 wins his last three seasons (40-5 record) before taking the same job at Freedom High.
Neuendorf, who started the program at Cox Mill four years ago and built the Chargers into a winner, isn't shying away from the amplified expectations. In fact, he welcomes the pressure.
"If you're a competitor you already have high expectations," he said. "You don't want to go to work where people don't care no matter what profession you're in. The results will be what they are. We're just excited to go play some football."
The Pirates open the Neuendorf era against Mount Tabor tonight on Monroe High's artificial turn (game was moved because of PR's soaked field). Porter Ridge has won 18 straight and haven't lost a home game since 2010.
"One of the places coach Hardin and his staff were really strong was preparing for games and watching film, and I'm more comfortable with this new staff now that we've been preparing for Mount Tabor this week," said senior Nick Vagnone, a three-year starter at linebacker who will also play running back this season. "The first time we had all the coaches together was team camp in late July, so that isn't much time. But we've meshed pretty well so far. Everybody's buying into it because we know what can happen when we buy in."
Porter Ridge has won or shared the conference championship four years in a row, and have reached the 4A state title game the past two seasons.
"When I took over the program from scratch at Cox Mill one of the biggest hurdles that I didn't foresee was the kids' understanding of how to win and how to prepare to win," Neuendorf said. "There's a big difference between preparing with the expectation to win and just going out there hoping to win. There's a big difference in the way you practice when you know how to win. These kids at Porter Ridge not only expect to win, they expect to work to win. I've been very impressed with that."
Neuendorf considers team speed a strength, but points out "speed and size are relative to who you're playing against."
Senior running back Jerrick Robbins rushed for 1,313 yards last season, and Neuendorf intends to get him the ball.
"Jerrick's an exciting, electric player with a lot of speed," Neuendorf said. "We want to get the ball to our speed in space."
The Pirates, who averaged 35.7 points per game last season, will spread the ball around.
Senior Luke Bayly, one of four two-way starters, led the team in receiving last year with 42 catches for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Junior QB Isaiah Hicklin became a starter late in the season and proved to be a dual-threat.
"It helps to have a quarterback that can scramble and get yards with his feet," said senior left tackle Yanick Mendes. "If the play breaks down we know he can still get make something positive out of it."
Hicklin enters the season as the starter, but the Pirates have depth at QB.
Senior Zach Danielsen was also a part-time starter at QB in 2012 before a broken foot ended his season.
"Zach and Isaiah have both proven themselves in games," Neuendorf said. "They've been pretty even with the snaps in practice, but we've done that with most of our kids throughout the summer to see where the pieces fit."
Robbins will be the feature back, but keying on him might be a mistake.
Neuendorf plans to use as many as five players for the two running back spots, and four of them start on defense — Vagnone, DT Devyn Cunningham, LB Ron Hedd and LB Grant Vandervoort.
Cornerback Casey Hardison and strong safety A.J. Barrett will also start at receiver.
"We're going to spread the ball around to all of those guys," Neuendorf said.
Vagnone has been impressed with Barrett's progress: "A.J.'s one of those guys that's gonna make you say 'Where has this guy been?'"
Neuendorf will have five first-year starters on the offensive line, but isn't willing to call it a concern.
"The offensive line is a question mark," he said. "That's not good and that's not bad, it's just an unknown. Our offensive line is very athletic and they're strong, smart kids who know where they're supposed to be. They've been well-coached and they understand technique. They know how to take good angles and how to play with low pad levels."
Mendes was a backup at left tackle last season but only saw game action as a defensive end.
Center Eric Hogan and right guard Matt Donahue have the most experience. Both got some playing time late in the year on the offensive line.
Mendes and right tackle Piero Lopez will also rotate in as backups on the D-line.
"Most of us started out as defensive linemen," Mendes said. "We don't have a lot of size but we do have speed, which helps getting to the linebacker. We'll be better than what people expect, but we still have a lot to learn. ... We have Jerrick back there and we have the same quarterbacks throwing to the same receivers, so I believe we'll be able to move the ball."
Porter Ridge leaned heavily on a defense that allowed just 6.8 points per game in the regular season last year, and held all 10 opponents to 14 points or less.
"It's safe to say we'll focus on our defense first," Neuendorf said. "If you're going to be good you have to be able to stop people. If they don't score they can't win."
The Pirates don't have a defensive starter over 225 pounds, and will give up a lot of size against the top teams in their new league that includes Butler and Independence.
"The key for us on defense is getting everybody on the same page so we can have all 11 guys running to the football," Neuendorf said. "You have to do that anyway, but especially if you're not a big team."
Vagnone has been first-team all-Union County the past two seasons, racking up 104 tackles as a junior and 88 as a sophomore.
Vagnone is moving from strongside linebacker to the middle.
Senior Ron Hedd, one of the Pirates' biggest hitters, was a part-time starter last year and replaces Vagnone on the strong side.
Vanderhoort will start at weakside linebacker and, like Hedd, be in the rotation at running back.
Vagnone and Vanderhoort have both been clocked under 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"I think our team speed is the best it's been since my freshman year," Vagnone said. "I think we're quicker at linebacker and on the D-line."
Cunningham had seven sacks last year as a defensive tackle and Bayly had three playing end.
Two starters on last year's defensive line are now on college football scholarships, including defensive end Avery Worsham (Western Carolina) and nose guard Ryan Dilworth (Wingate), who had eight sacks each.
Senior Donnie Warren is replacing Worsham at end and senior Solomon Worthy is filling Dilworth's vacancy.
"Solomon is very fundamentally sound and he works real hard," Vagnone said. "And Don Warren is one of the hardest workers on the team. Don will be just fine."
Hardison is a returning starter at cornerback, and Robbins has been a starting safety the last two seasons but will be used more sparingly because of his role on offense.
Senior Tyler Harrell moves in as the starting free safety next to Barrett, and senior Dalton Ames is starting at cornerback.
Robbins can help anywhere in the defensive backfield. He will share time with Ames at cornerback, but will also be available to play safety.
The Pirates are playing their most challenging schedule ever — they face nine 4A schools — so Neuendorf will try to develop as much depth as possible.
"Right now everybody's healthy so we go into Week 1 in good shape," Neuendorf said. "From then on it's moving parts and that's one of the managerial duties of being the coach. ... They lost a lot of good seniors from last year. There's a lot of good seniors on this team. The good news is the JV team has only lost once in the last two years, so we've got good classes behind these guys. We've got a good group of young players that will help us on special teams, and when the time comes where we need to put them out there, they have to be ready."
Porter Ridge Pirates Projected Starters
Porter Ridge's 2013
Aug. 23^Mount Tabor
Aug. 30^at Piedmont
Sept. 13^at South Meck
Sept. 20^at Sun Valley
Oct. 11^at Garinger
Oct. 18^Myers Park
Oct. 25^at Butler
Nov. 1^at East Meck
Nov. 8^Rocky River
Porter Ridge's 2012 results
Porter Ridge 35, Monroe 13
Porter Ridge 58, Piedmont 7
Porter Ridge 38, Forest Hills 6
Porter Ridge 41, A.L. Brown 14
Porter Ridge 17, Providence Day 7
Porter Ridge 21, Marvin Ridge 14
Porter Ridge 69, Parkwood 0
Weddington 7, Porter Ridge 0
Porter Ridge 55, Anson 0
Porter Ridge 16, Sun Valley 0
4A state playoffs
Porter Ridge 69, Watauga 0
Porter Ridge 16, A.C. Reynolds 6
Porter Ridge 28, Sun Valley 21
Porter Ridge 34, North Davidson 27
Porter Ridge 39, New Bern 38