The Hillside Journey: Part 2

Nov. 16, 2010 3:07 pm

Producer’s note: As Hillside High attempts to win its first state championship in school history, reesenews will follow their progress in a multi-part series. In this installment, Hillside faces Greensboro’s Southeast Guilford High in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs.

Previously:

Part 1: Hillside completes an undefeated regular season with a win against rival Northern High.

11 in the Box

“Looking at their stats, they’re really out of whack.”

Those words, emphatically spoken, came from Hillside head coach Antonio King on Friday afternoon, hours before his team’s first state playoff game. The Hornets had successfully completed an 11-0 regular season campaign the week before, earning the top eastern seed in the 32-team 4-A playoffs. It was the school’s first undefeated finish in 67 years.

Hillside has never won a football state championship, but this year presents their best opportunity yet. Vad Lee, a standout senior quarterback, leads a lethal offense that averages 40 points per game. He’ll be heading to Georgia Tech next year, but he’s not alone among the Hillside stars. Their defense has been equally strong, allowing less than 10 points per game and conceding only 14 in the final three weeks of the season. Players like Myer Krah and Anthony Talley have had exceptional senior seasons, and Treshawn Council, an outside linebacker who saved the undefeated season against Southern High in late September with a sack on a last-second two-point conversion, has committed to East Carolina.

Their opponent Friday, Greensboro’s Southeast Guilford, came in with a more workmanlike 6-5 record. The imbalance Coach King referred to was reflected in Southeast Guilford’s play calling. Out of roughly 410 plays from scrimmage, King told me, the Falcons had rushed 370 times and passed only 40.

“They want to use a double tight end with three backs, so that should play to our advantage,” he said. “We’ll be getting just about all 11 in the box for run support.”

“The box” is a roughly 10-yard area between the offensive tackles. It’s where the interior running plays happen, and the defensive side is usually occupied by roughly four linemen and up to three linebackers. But all 11 in the box, including the defensive backs? I took it as an exaggeration—surely you couldn’t commit every player to the inside run without being fatally burned by play-action passes — but I was wrong.

The Chances

Realistically, I wondered, could Southeast Guilford win? If they’ve only passed 40 times all season, wouldn’t the more physical Hornets easily shut down the run and force them into the discomfort of an aerial attack? And wouldn’t that be disastrous for a team who clearly shies away from throwing? It struck me that one of two outcomes was possible:

1. Southeast Guilford comes in bigger and stronger than expected. With a little luck and some timely turnovers, they race out to an early lead and grind first down after first down. Their strength and consistency breaks down the Hillside defensive line. A few timely passes earn them big yardage chunks. Hillside panics, the players get discouraged, and a shocker develops.

2. Southeast Guilford is severely misguided. The run is stopped quickly and effectively. Their lack of variety proves to be a fatal flaw as Vad Lee and his talented running and receiving corps run roughshod. The game becomes a blowout by halftime.

Number two seemed a lot more likely.

Hillside

It was my first trip to Hillside High’s field, and the most striking detail was the golden color of the grass. Inside a rubberized track, the 120-yard expanse lacked even a semblance of green. A blazing, drought-laden summer had thoroughly baked any chlorophyll into extinction, and now Hillside’s gridiron looked like a Midwest wheat field mowed to the roots.

The school’s excellent marching band, 50 strong, filtered into the Hillside stands a half hour before kickoff. The horn section blared and the cymbalists spun their brass discs in the air while 25 dancers bobbed and shimmied in the front rows. On the fifty-yard line, a large blue “H” was painted off-center, and a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern garnished the end zone. “Today,” said the PA announcer, “Hillside will be entertaining the Falcons of Southeast Guilford.” I liked his choice of words, as though the Hornets might be providing cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for the visitors.

I met Coach King on the sideline. He’s a big man with an easy smile and a rhythmic, quietly eloquent style of speech. While his assistant coaches roar on the sideline, full of advice for their players and complaints for the referees, King is usually in a calmer place. This is his second year as head coach and his seventh with the program. He’s worked at Hillside High monitoring the in-school suspension program for three years. He told me the team was feeling good, and introduced me to Hans Lassiter, the school’s principal. Lassiter wore a leather jacket and had the short, solid build of a former football player. “As we say,” he told me, “we’re cautiously optimistic.” His schedule was busy the next day, and he planned to leave early if Hillside could manage a 30-point lead.

As kickoff approached, I counted about 450 Hillside fans along with 150 on the opposite sideline. Again, the low numbers surprised me. At Durham County Stadium the week before, Hillside had brought only about 300 or so for a game that would decide the conference title.

“In all honesty, I think it was low last week because sometimes we get a little nervous in the cold weather,” King said earlier. “They looked at what it was, and some people didn’t think it would be much of a game. The people will be there tonight. Sometimes, there’s comfort in being at home. We know the fans are coming.”

It was cold again, though, and the stands weren’t full. In the far end zone, the Southeast Guilford squad lined up. A banner with the school colors was stretched out, and the team sprinted through, tearing the paper and exhorting one another to the faint applause of their meager fan section. It was a strange and audacious move to make on another team’s field, and the audacity continued when they opened the game with an onsides kick. The Hornet offense ran on the field when the whistle blew, and Vad Lee seemed to be the only player who understood the bad news: the kicking team had recovered. He waved for his teammates to return.

The bold Falcons drove the ball downfield, but a sack placed them at third and very long. They chose to run the ball (strangely, I thought) and were stopped. After the punt, Lee and the offense finally jogged out. The quarterback’s first few passes were off the mark, a product of cold, nerves, or both. Then, as he was rolling right on third down, a lineman caught his foot. Lee stayed upright as the large defender tugged at his leg like a child begging his father not to leave, and launched the ball about 40 yards downfield, flat-footed. Impressive as it was, the throw resulted in an interception, and the Falcon sideline erupted in cheers.

I’ll spare you the suspense

That interception was as good as it got for Southeast Guilford. They continued to run the ball from conservative formations that went out of style elsewhere in America around the 1950s. In one, they used double tight ends with three running backs in a close T-formation. In another, they set three backs directly behind the offensive line on one side and tried power runs with a fourth back lined up behind the QB. By game’s end, I could count on one hand the number of times they even had a wide receiver split to the side.

As promised, Hillside committed all eleven defenders to the box. It was a strange sight to behold — 22 men within breathing distance of one another. It must have been how football looked before the forward pass, or how warfare looked before the invention of projectiles.

On defense, Southest Guilford blitzed and blitzed and blitzed. Vad Lee, operating out of the pistol formation, calmly ran his offense. Coach King allows him to audibilize if he doesn’t like a play (unique for a high school quarterback), but it was rarely necessary Friday. The play calling from Hillside was masterful: an unpredictable mix of runs, short screens and long passes, options, and reverses. Drive after drive ended with a touchdown. Khris Francis and Jamal Williams kept them honest on the interior, rushing 11 times each for a combined 155 yards, but the true stars of the game were Lee and the receivers.

Devondray Watson caught two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion on his way to amassing 103 receiving yards. Watson is perpetually one of the shortest players on the field, but his footwork after a catch devastated much larger defensive backs. Unlike Lee, who runs with a loping, serene sort of grace, Watson is all sudden quickness, pitter-patter motion designed to shift direction in a hurry. On his second touchdown catch, off a quick Lee toss to the right flat, he skipped by two defenders, was met at the goal line by two more, spun after the first hit, tucked the ball, and ricocheted like a pinball into the end zone.

Vad Lee’s game was a bit inconsistent. His passing accuracy was sporadic, with several slant throws zipping to a receiver’s toes or a step behind where their momentum had placed them. He ended the contest completing only 8 passes out of 16 attempts. But his absurd athleticism defined the character of the game; on just a handful of rushes, he gained 92 yards, and his scrambling ability often rescued his team on 1st or 2nd-and-long situations.

It’s not just that he does it — it’s how

Lee stands straight up, like a man conscious of his posture. The way he moves around defenders is almost stylized. He can be like a lighthouse in a storm, high and beaming among the ineffectual spray, but with the ability to transform in an instant to something more mobile and destructive. On a 40-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Lee scrambled right, danced around the blitzers, and surged through an opening in the line. He ran with such power that the last defensive back to stand in his way seemed to be retreating. Diving for the legs may have been the best option, but when legs are churning that fast and with that much force, the idea of placing your body in their path seems about as wise as sticking your hand into the whirring rotor of a helicopter.

Instead, the back stood upright and grasped. Lee, who had been a shifter and a dodger up to that point in the run, sensed this weakness. With a cruel stiff-arm, Lee sent the defender sprawling backward into the yellow grass, from which vantage the back watched the great athlete race into the end zone.

As he traverses the field, Lee does not seem to even be looking at the defenders. There’s a serene quality to his movements, a steadiness that seems to suggest an internal engine. He’s a bit like a boat, which moves through the medium of water without seeming to notice the individual waves.

“That was sick”

Quoth Jamal Williams, a strong runner himself, as he leaped in celebration behind me on the sideline. “Not bad at all,” he shouted.

By halftime, the score was 30-0 (but Hans Lassiter, the principal who required that exact margin, was enjoying himself too much to depart). After the first interception, Hillside had scored on every possession. I asked Greg Gentry, who manages the balls for the team and who drives a transport shuttle for handicapped students in three different districts, to predict the final score. “43-0,” he told me, “and I’m usually on point.” That had been true last week, when he nailed the Hillside-Northern game, but tonight the guess seemed far too low.

Now that the game was all but over, though, a new story line had emerged. At some point in the second quarter, with the score 16-0, I’d turned to my photographer Jim. “Has Guilford passed yet?” I asked. We presented the same question to Joe Johnson, the reporter from The Herald-Sun. All three of us tried to remember an instance when Southeast put the ball in the air. Nothing was conjured.

A singular act of stubbornness

Not only had they not passed up to that point — they didn’t pass the entire game.

The quarterback dropped back, presumably to throw, only once in the first half. He was sacked before he could release the ball, and it never happened again. By the end of the second quarter, the absence was shocking. By the end of the game, it was bizarre. It actually made me angry, but I didn’t yet understand why. What were the other coaches trying to prove? Were they stubborn throwbacks who worshipped “power football”? Did they actually believe they could win by running? Had nobody told them the forward pass was legalized during a special football committee meeting in 1906?

At halftime, I spoke with a few Southeast fans who were frustrated by the one-track game plan. Any alternative, they thought, would be worth a shot. The referees, trying to stay warm near midfield, concurred; nobody would beat Hillside by running up the middle, they said.

Jim and I decided to watch from the Southeast side of the field during the third quarter, and the morale there was much as you might imagine. “What are you doing down there, coach?!” yelled one fan. “You’re running one play!” protested another. The coaches themselves seemed totally lost, and the players were despondent.

Southeast was a smaller team, and without their helmets on they actually looked like high schoolers. I didn’t find this to be true for Hillside; for whatever reason, they looked to me like grown men. Out on the yellow grass, the Hornet players approached the line in their natty blue home uniforms. The line hunched in three-point stances, and their breath came out in white, vaporous, disappearing clouds. Vad Lee gestured at the defense and shouted at his teammates, plotting the next touchdown. It struck me as unfair that these two teams would share the same field.

The final Southeast Guilford rushing numbers were almost tragic. Michael Fields fared the best, managing 85 yards on 24 carries. Marques Haynes carried it 14 times, gaining only 26 yards. When the game ended, I wanted to ask the Southeast coach about his strange decision. But when he finished shaking hands with the Hillside players, he didn’t look like a man who wanted to answer that type of question. So I asked Coach King instead.

“I’m still a little baffled by that,” he said. “At one point I’m expecting a pass. 30-0, 40-0? I mean … wow.” Like me, he was amazed by the lack of halftime adjustments. “Their only comeback is to put #2 at quarterback?” He shook his head and smiled. “I still can’t believe they didn’t throw a pass the whole game.”

Vad Lee just laughed when I asked him about it. “I might be in that situation next year at Georgia Tech,” he said. On the topic of the Southeast Guilford defense, he didn’t mince words. “We could’ve done anything we wanted against them. The defense in the middle was open. I just took what they gave me.”

Why it bothered me

Nobody would argue that the lack of passing was anything but abnormal, but it became clear that of all parties involved, it affected me the most. Why wouldn’t they try a new strategy? I wondered. Why, in an elimination playoff game, wouldn’t you pull out all the stops in an attempt to win?

The answer came later, long after the game had ended. What really bothered me, I discovered, was the clash of styles. Southeast Guilford ran a retrograde offense, bound by forced simplicity and eschewing modern developments. Hillside embraced variety, and the resultant system was free-flowing, fast, and exciting. By refusing to throw, Southeast Guilford seemed to be issuing some kind of rebuke—a moral statement, as it were. It reminded me of the values-based posturing so beloved of modern politicians, full of creepy nostalgia and proud ignorance. It was the opposite of evolution. And maybe there was a racial element, too. Southeast Guilford had many white players (Hillside has none), and their modus operandi was stereotypically slow and stodgy. It was like the zeitgeist of the self-satisfied poor American right, full of resentful obesity and trips to Wal-Mart, had been distilled into a football offense.

Then I thought that maybe Southeast just didn’t have a good quarterback.

But wait: that doesn’t quite explain it. Their system had been in place the entire year. The coaches had chosen to base their offense on this boring, conservative ideal. Philosophy aside, it’s not a system that could ever produce a championship. What kind of person would choose it at the expense of something more invigorating?

It was rigidity for its own sake. I was glad to see Southeast getting trounced.

The down side

As with the Northern game, Hillside was penalized to an almost extreme degree. False starts, holding, and defensive offside were the most common miscues, and they were not infrequent. Vad Lee’s legs saved them from bad spots on more than one occasion, and Hillside had to convert several fourth downs to keep drives alive. At halftime, one of the assistants was so furious with the referees that Coach King had to intervene, repeating “I’m the head coach” until the man calmed down.

From my perspective, though, very few of the calls were unfair. But while the Hornets streamed to the softball field during intermission, a persecution complex was on full display. And not just among the players—even some of the coaches complained about how the refs treated Hillside.

It was 30-0. I’d hate to see how this attitude manifests if they’re ever actually losing.

Here’s how Hillside won’t lose: by meeting a team with more talent.

Here’s how they might lose: by meeting a team with impressive talent and a lot of discipline. A slow start like Friday’s might be more relevant against a team with more coaching intelligence than Southeast Guilford. Hillside can be spectacular, but they’re also prone to turnovers and penalties. The crucial question for them is whether they’ll face a team who can capitalize on these mistakes. With luck going against them, it’s easy to see how the Hillside personnel might start to blame the referees and turn against each other.

It’s a cliché to say that a team can only beat themselves, but in Hillside’s case it may become true. It’s a battle they’ll certainly have to face on the road to a state championship.

Gentry on point

The smiling man with the footballs predicted a 43-0 final score, and he almost got it. With time running out in the fourth quarter, Frederick Adujua came on the field. Adujua is a sporadic kicker, capable of bombing kickoffs near the end zone or sending ugly shanks to the sideline. Earlier in the game he’d attempted a field goal over 40 yards and hooked it violently to the left. The ball landed at about the 15-yard-line. This time, though, he sent it through from 32. Gentry slapped a ball against his hand and laughed. “I was on point,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Pembroke…

Purnell Swett High School was beating Terry Sanford High 28-14 to advance to the 4-A round of 16. They’ll travel to Durham next Friday night to try their luck at Hillside. At 8-4, they’re likely to provide stiffer competition for the Hornets.

In Durham, Southeast ran the clock out with three straight runs. The crowd on the home side had thinned out, and the players shared a mild celebration. In some ways, they’d faced the perfect opponent. Without being seriously challenged, they had the opportunity to shore up their run defense and gain confidence against a team that wanted to slug it out in the trenches.

Four games now stand between Hillside and the state championship. November stretches on, and the journey gets harder from here.