The Hillside Journey, Part 6

Dec. 14, 2010 3:02 am

Editor’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 Davie County High School in the state 4-A championship.

Previously:

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

Part 2: Hillside dispatches Southeast Guilford in the first round of the playoffs.

Part 3: Hillside routs Purnell Swett in the round of16.

Part 4: Hillside advances to the Final 4 with a win against Lee County

Part 5: Hillside wins the Eastern Regional championship in a classic against New Bern

WINSTON-SALEM

The Fall and Rise of Aquez Willis

On the first play from scrimmage in the 4-A state championship, Hillside’s Vad Lee threw a wide receiver screen. Aquez Willis darted upfield, but the ball was out of his reach and fell harmlessly to the turf at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field. A second after it passed, a defensive back from the Davie County War Eagles laid a punishing hit on Willis, driving him hard to the turf.

The collision was on the borderline of being punishably late, but no flags were thrown. Hillside coach Antonio King stepped out to complain to the officials, and staff from Duke Medicine attended to the receiver; he hadn’t moved since the hit.

In the aftershock, a charged-up Davie County player turned to the stands and threw both arms in the air, exhorting them to make their voices heard. The response was immediate. Seven thousand fans—a number determined by The News & Observer—roared their approval. Most of them wore orange, and an inordinately high number also wore beige Carhartt coveralls or head-to-toe camouflage—sartorial choices which gave that side of the stadium the feel of a hunter’s convention.

The thundering cheer reverberated in the stands. It was a battle cry issued for the benefit of their team, the hurt receiver, and the less numerous Hillside supporters. The war had begun, they thought, and Davie County was accustomed to wars. Unlike Hillside, who had coasted through most of their regular season and playoffs, only facing a stern challenge in the state semifinals, Davie County had reached this point the hard way. After finishing the season 5-6, they’d stunned a series of playoff opponents, including a fantastic team from Mt. Tabor that many had pegged as the state’s best.

In one sense, these fans didn’t have far to come on Saturday morning; Davie County High School is only 26 miles outside Winston-Salem. But as a team and a fanbase, they’d come the farthest of anyone. Leading up to the state championship, they heard all about Hillside’s greatness. They knew about Vad Lee, probably headed to Georgia Tech but lately being courted by UNC. They knew about the team speed, and the team size, and the team strength. They knew about the undefeated record. They knew they were supposed to lose.

But they also knew they were supposed to lose every Friday for the past month. And if they’d won all those games, what was different about today? If they considered the initial hit a defiant statement, you could understand why. The cheer that rang out, though it seemed on its face like unsportsmanlike glee directed at another player’s injury, was in fact a declaration of identity: We’re a football team, too. We love being underdogs. We’re here to play.

Willis eventually rose from the turf. He’d only had the wind knocked out of his sails, and five plays later he was back in action. From the 40 yard-line, Vad Lee dropped back to pass. It seemed that the Davie linemen had broken through, sparking another brief commotion from the orange faithful, but Lee used his tremendous gifts to elude them and roll right. He spotted his receiver on a deep crossing route. When he finally threw, the Davie defensive backs could only raise their hands in a futile plea to forces beyond their reach. Aquez Willis, the man they’d just knocked out of the game to great fanfare, streaked to the corner and caught the game’s first touchdown.

The Davie Count fans fell silent. A hit is a hit, but the pure athleticism displayed by Lee and Willis was their first indication that they were facing a new kind of foe.

Speed kills. That’s how you make a statement.

Practice

On Wednesday, Hillside used the football practice field at Duke to get some reps on turf. Like last week, this practice was relaxed. Winter had set in, the team’s knowledge of its own capabilities was strong, and full contact rehearsals, with their inherent risk of injury, weren’t on the menu.

Despite the lack of pads and the cold weather, though, the intensity was lurking just below the surface. During full team drills, junior linebacker Jamal Marcus wreaked havoc on the rush, to the point that Coach King called out junior lineman Casey Perry for playing soft. On the next play, Perry landed a vicious pancake block on Marcus, sending him sprawling onto the ground after the play finished. I braced for a possible confrontation, but everyone seemed to love it, including Marcus.

While the offense ran their passing sets, it was possible to witness the close connection between King and Vad Lee. King graduated from Hillside in 1993, and had a playing career at Howard University and N.C. Central. He was a quarterback, and though Vad Lee’s natural gifts are entirely his own, his ability to lead a complex west coast offense is an extension of King.

While Lee cycled through the Hillside offensive repertoire on Wednesday, King was constantly in his ear, offering a stream of advice and guidance that sounded either coded or philosophical, depending on the moment.

My favorite of the latter came on the topic of a shifting defense. Lee failed to make the proper read, and Coach King was on the case: “They are who they become, correct?” It sounded like a perfect summation of the way humans change throughout a lifetime, and how we can only be considered as we exist in the present. He just disguised it as football talk.

The strength, accuracy, and touch of Lee’s arm are impressive from the sideline, but witnessing it from behind was even better. From that vantage, it was possible to see how receivers came open for split seconds, and how quickly each opportunity vanished. As defenses become more sophisticated at the high school level, a quarterback has to make increasingly fast decisions. You can’t play this position if you’re stupid. King’s constant tutelage has developed Vad Lee into a Division 1 talent, and it’s obvious that both parties enjoy the ongoing education.

The No-Names

Ernest Hodge, the defensive coordinator, enjoys it less. Every day at practice, his unit has to face one of the state’s most dynamic offensive systems. Worse, he has to personally endure King’s gloating after every success, of which there are many.

“Ain’t it good!” King yelled after a long touchdown pass.

“Where you at, Hodge?” he asked after another.

“Hey safeties, get some water, it’s cold out here!” he taunted at the end of the drill.

Throughout the abuse, Hodge marched up and down the sideline, grumbling at his defense and at Coach King, valiantly attempting to slow down the best team he’d seen all year. But Wednesday, they failed again and again. Aside from the distinct difficulty of facing great athletes, the lack of pads meant they weren’t allowed to hit. That made the mission nearly impossible.

Hillside’s offensive greatness brings a lot of accolades, and Coach Hodge is well aware of his secondary status. He calls his group the “no-names,” and they take pride in their anonymous success.

On Wednesday, they didn’t look like the team that had held New Bern’s high-powered offense to 7 points in the state semifinals. But the slaughter I was witnessing is precisely it happened. Hodge’s constant adjustments and his repeated failures may be a source of frustration, but they’re also a huge advantage against defenses that lack the privilege of practicing against the best.

Roots

I spoke to Vad Lee afterward, and he told me he’s played playing football since he was seven. In 2003, he led the Durham Eagles, the city’s excellent Pop Warner football organization, to a national championship in the junior peewee division. He was the game’s MVP. He still has the highlights.

“My mom and my dad always wanted me to play sports,” he told me. “Football was the first sport I ever played.” I asked him how he felt about the season ending, and with it his high school career. “Last week I was very emotional,” he said. “But this week, I’m all right. Just to know I’m going to have that ring on my finger…”

He trailed off, and I asked him a few more questions. It’s an odd feeling to interview someone like Vad Lee, because I want to try to relate to him on a basic level, to seem somehow different than the hordes of sports writers asking him questions after a game. But the truth is that his motivations and thoughts are his own, and a prying sports writer is exactly what I feel like, and exactly what I am.

But if there’s one impression I take away from Vad, besides his overall friendliness and the bubbling confidence that comes with his great talent, it’s his desire to be an extension of the community. His twitter account is full of references to Durham, and how he loves the support he gets from the city, and how badly he wants to win for them. Our conversations inevitably moved in this direction, too. For Lee, it’s more than just the right thing to say. He’s a believer, and winning a state championship would validate his pride in Durham, and cement the deep connection he feels.

Which is why it wouldn’t surprise me to see him end up at UNC instead of Georgia Tech. I’m just saying.

The Odd Couple

Practice ended with a missed field goal. Frederick Adujua, who has a very powerful leg and who the PA announcer at the state championships would keep calling “Frederick Adu,” like the Ghanaian-born U.S. soccer star, lined up from 50 yards out. He missed a couple of those and moved to 46. He put one of his first attempts through, but Coach King pretended he wasn’t sure and made him kick another. The last attempt hit the crossbar and bounced away.

Earlier, Hodge had teased the kicker about losing his legs.

“He’s in love,” said Coach King. “Love’s bad for the legs.”

“Love don’t get you nothing but children,” Hodge advised.

It was a joke, I think, but in some way I bet Hodge meant it. Watching he and King interact on the field, you get the distinct sense that football may be all they need. An assistant told me earlier in the night that he expected King wouldn’t stay at Hillside forever, that he might be bound for bigger and better things. If so, it would seem strange if Hodge didn’t follow along. King, with his exuberant style and penchant for humor, and the high profile that comes with leading a dynamic offense, is the perfect foil to Hodge, the brooding second man driven to success by all the chips on his shoulder.

In a deeper sense, King embodies offense, and Hodge embodies defense. How can they exist without each other?

Back to Wake: The Best Pass I’ve Seen All Year

It came on the first play of the second Hillside possession. Shawn Malloy, a senior receiver, had been re-integrated into the offense by increments after an earlier injury. He was back to good health for the title game, and on Hillside’s second possession, Coach King sent him on a streak route. He raced by the defense, and the pass Lee threw can only be described with words you might also use to describe an eagle, like ‘majestic’ and ‘soaring.’ The papers called it a 57-yard touchdown, and if we consider that the quarterback dropped back at least seven yards before throwing and that Malloy caught it very near the goal line, it’s no exaggeration to say that ball flew 60 yards in the air.

A long pass produces a kind of breathless anticipation among spectators. Unlike the crossing patterns I’d watched in practice, a bomb is best viewed from the sideline. Receiver and ball travel in the same direction, and watching their altitudes conjoin is one of the best moments in sports. At the beginning, it’s impossible to know whether the pass is on target, whether the path is of sufficient velocity to meet up with the path of the receiver at the perfect space and time. None of this is evident; it’s just a beautiful brown spiral slicing through the air. As it gets closer, the anticipation turns to possibility. Vectors and potential can begin to be assessed. Is it too far? Is it underthrown?

In this case, the answer was a definitive ‘no.’ Malloy had the step on his defenders; the ball settled in softly. For Hillside fans, the pass was divine and inspired. For Davie County, it was an expression of fatalism.

In a wonderful quote after the game, Davie coach Doug Illing gave voice to the awe. “It shocked our kids how far he could really throw it.” In a less eloquent quote on the sideline, I found my photographer Jim and asked what I felt was an essential question: “did you see that pass?”

You’ll forgive me if my actual quote had an extra, unprintable word between “that” and “pass.”

An angry-looking official from Wake Forest told me to step away from the sideline.

The Trio

I came to Hillside on Friday thinking there was going to be a pep rally. Apparently, it had been cancelled. I walked into the main office, and a young man in a green argyle sweater opened the door for me. I asked him if he knew where I could find Coach King, and he said no. He was friendly and slightly possessed by nervous energy. He sat on the edge of his chair, and he knew enough about the football program that I wondered if this was an assistant I’d yet to meet. I asked, and he laughed at me. Wrong. This was Myer Krah, a senior defensive back.

He and fellow defensive back Christian Davis-Ballard and offensive lineman Derek Verren, all seniors, were about to meet with a recruiter from Catawba. Davis-Ballard, unlike Krah, looks his age. He had a huge interception against New Bern in the semifinal, and he’d have another pick against Davie. On the field, his athleticism is evident, but in person he’s rail thin.

“You should’ve seen Christian in ninth through eleventh grade,” said Krah, who I quickly learned is a treasure trove of quotes. “You wouldn’t even think he played golf.”

Speaking of size, Verren told me that on film, Davie County looked like “a middle school pee-wee team.” He was trying not to be over-confident, and suggested that their small size might be a result of wearing oversized jerseys.

All three felt a mixture of excitement about the game and sadness that the season was ending. They worried about being able to sleep that night, especially since the game would begin at 11 a.m. “I might even sleep with my girdle on,” said Krah. “I want to be ready.” He told me he planned to eat gummy bears at the hotel, and I told him that was a bad idea.

Krah spoke to me about Hillside’s semifinal loss two year earlier. He was a sophomore when a last-second missed field goal by Douglas Byrd High had seemed to send the Hornets to the state championship. But the referees threw a flag for roughing the center, and the second attempt went through, ending their season. “I didn’t even shake hands,” said Krah. “I just went into the locker room and cried.”

This year was different. It was a kind of redemption. “Our motto was 16-0,” said Krah. “15-1?”

“It don’t sound good,” said Davis-Ballard.

Then Krah became reflective. “We ain’t even been thinking about it a lot. Us being seniors, we’ll never touch that field again. We’ll never touch another white jersey. Never get to put them helmets on…”

The recruiter encouraged them to enjoy it. “This is the best moment of your lives, up to this point,” he said. The unspoken end to that thought was, “maybe ever.”

Krah kept up a steady dialogue for a few minutes, the product of a natural talker charged by the reality of playing for a state championship in 24 hours. He was a hard person not to like

Before the bell rang and they headed out to meet their coaches and get ready for the bus ride to Winston-Salem, I asked them about the difficulty of practicing against the Hillside offense. Davis-Ballard provided the most apt summary of the symbiotic relationship. “They good,” he said, “cause we good.”

Helpful Advice for Future Hillside Opponents

Don’t run through a banner before the game. Be advised: teams who chose this tactic were at least 0-5 against Hillside in 2010. Davie County’s banner had a pink heart with every player’s number written in black inside. It read: “History in the making.”

A Title in the Making

After Lee’s pass to Malloy, Davie County took over for their second possession. Despite their excellent and unlikely run in the playoffs, the fact remained that the War Eagles had neither size nor speed. As such, to put it bluntly, they had no chance.

On third down, their pass was tipped, and it fell into the arms of Ronald Thompson, who rumbled 30 yards into the end zone. “That one was for you, baby!” said Krah as he ran off the field. Earlier, after the second touchdown, Verren had come to the sideline animated and crowing. “It’s too easy!” he yelled. “It’s too easy!”

And it was. By halftime, the score was 40-0. The second half was a slog of failed running drives, and the score never changed. The real championship had occurred the week before, when Hillside and New Bern played a 12-7 classic in Durham. The title match, on the other hand, wasn’t a game; it was a coronation.

Highlights

*Jamal Marcus and Anthony Talley were absolute forces of nature on defense. Talley was involved in what seemed like every tackle. Marcus literally knocked Davie’s tackle to the ground on each play. It was like watching him bull rush a small child; he’d line up, the ball would be snapped, he’d charge at the tackle, shove him with both hands, and the tackle would sprawl backward. Talley attacked the quarterback too, and on one late sack, he decided to just push him over rather than employ a traditional tackle. It worked well.

*On a kickoff, Myer Krah made the hardest hit I’ve ever seen in person. He was the gunner, charging downfield ahead of his teammates. The returner caught the kick and stood in place, frozen either by indecision or fear. The gunner bore down, refusing to veer from his straight line. If his man zigged or zagged, Krah knew his teammates would have his back. The returner was motionless, hoping for Krah to slow down in anticipation of his move. Krah kept coming, and the result was a merciless mollywhomp. A hush fell over the Davie County stands. The collision made the opening hit look like a gentle embrace between middle-aged women. The Hillside stands became a collective exclamation: “ohhhhhh!”

*Jamaal Williams effectively ended the game with a 32-yard run on a draw. Later, he ran it in from 11, slowing up before the goal line and fairly strutting into the end zone.

*Jarrell Jones, a senior receiver whose two older brothers played for Burlington Cummings and won a state championship on the same field, made a great touchdown catch to end the scoring in the second quarter.

*At one point in the fourth quarter, Coach King came sprinting down the sideline, his whole torso pressed forward as if someone was pursuing him with an electric cattle prod. The players had doused him with a Gatorade jug full of very cold ice water.

*I had plenty of chances to watch the amazing band and dancers perform “Now That We Found Love” after Hillside touchdowns. If anybody involved with the program is reading this, please know that I’m ready to join the dance team.

*A girl in the student section at Davie County had a vuvuzela. She used it liberally, which made it even easier to root against her team. The section itself continually yelled at the Hillside players, at least one of whom (senior receiver Christian Jones) waved back and gave a thumbs-up. They even yelled something at me as I was their sideline, and I’m glad I couldn’t make out the words.

*Vad Lee was sacked by a fallen referee. None of the Sunday newspapers gave the official credit, which is a shame since sacking Vad Lee is very difficult.

*After the starters had been pulled, Davie County made one last foray into Hillside territory. They got as far as the 10-yard line. “First team!” yelled Coach King, and the studs went back out on the field. The end zone was not breached.

All My Favorite People

They’d come for the coronation.

There was Greg Gentry, with his constant smile and an armful of footballs, who predicted a 37-10 final score. There was Preston Giles, who films every game for his son Zack, the Pac-6 offensive lineman of the year. There was Joe Johnson and Terry Hill, the very nice reporters from the Herald-Sun and the News & Observer who carpooled together to Winston-Salem and sat like kings high above the field in the press box, and whose diverse statistics I’ve stolen for this series almost without remorse. There was Gene Tatum, the friendly videographer for Hillside High. There was King, and Hodge, and Coach T and all the assistants and players on this great team who let me follow them around on the sidelines and write down everything they said, including and especially the things they weren’t yearning to have publicized.

(In a song called “Looking for Astronauts,” Matt Berninger of The National sings this line: “You know you have a permanent piece/of my medium-sized American heart.”)

In the massive huddle following the victory, Vad Lee received the MVP. The players from Davie County looked on with forlorn expressions, but there weren’t many tears. The outcome had been decided very early. The week before, some New Bern players had collapsed weeping after their loss. The tension of a tight game had vanished, leaving them empty and grieving. But the War Eagles were taking it in stride.

I asked Anthony Talley how it felt to be undefeated. “Win win win,” he said. “You know, we so used to winning, it don’t feel no different.”

But it felt different for Jamaal Williams, who won offensive player of the game. “Wow!” he shouted. “This is crazy! I didn’t even imagine myself getting this award, I didn’t expect that at all. It’s just a sign of all the hard work, not only of me but of the offensive line as well.” He looked around, alive with victory and wanting to share it with his teammates and family. “I gotta go!” he said. He stopped, looked back, and kindly added, “I’ll get back with you, though!”

When everyone had filtered to the locker room, I found Coach Hodge walking by himself, holding a Hillside sledgehammer and looking thoughtful. I suggested that he must have an even broader perspective than the players, having spent a career around football. “I mean, shucks,” he said, “first time for me too. The guys, man, they never quit. That’s amazing to me. Through everything we go through, in practice, at school, in life, these guys come out, and they just love this game. It brings something out in them.”

Not surprisingly, he also had some words for the group of people who are both his lifeblood and the bane of his existence: the naysayers. “It’s just the small stuff that bothers me, man,” he said. “All the naysayers are gonna say, ‘they’re still undisciplined.’ So now I guess an undisciplined team can win the state championship. It feels good.”

The King of Hillside, the Prince of Durham

In the parking lot, by the bus, the players and their families were gathered. Someone offered me a blue cupcake, and it was delicious. I found Coach King holding court in front of the bus. I asked him the same question I asked Coach Hodge, about how it felt for someone with a lifetime in football to finish a dream season.

“It was something we set our mind to,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to do is to help kids become young men. We had to show ‘em a set of goals, and we had to show ‘em that it takes hard work to reach your goals, and not to give up, not to quit, don’t let a little adversity stop you. Reach your goals and we’ll be all right. And that’s what they did.”

Amid the frenzy in the parking lot, he took a moment to appreciate what this team had accomplished. “When we play Hillside football…yeah, it’s pretty hard to stop us,” he said. He laughed. “It’s pretty hard.”

Like King, Vad Lee seemed composed even in the glow of success. At practice Wednesday, he’d been eager to talk about his city and his school. “Hillside hasn’t won it at all, and Hillside has always wanted something to have their name on,” he told me. “It’d be good to have our name on something big.”

On Saturday, he gave them something big. The Hillside journey had ended in the best way possible. I found it difficult to think of any but the most generic questions. All I could muster was, “how does this feel?”

“You see this whole community we got here?” he asked me, looking back at his fans. “I just love everybody.” He started to say more, but then a loud roar came from the stands as another award was presented to the team.

“That explains it right there,” he said. “The crowd going crazy? That explains it.”