One More Step

Porter Ridge football ‘program’ reaches state title game, seeks another big victory

by C. Jemal Horton

Porter Ridge football coach Blair Hardin (center) said is team is “a program now” after the Pirates defeated Mooresville last week to reach the Class 4A state championship game at Wake Forest University on Saturday, Dec. 3. (C. Jemal Horton/UCW photo)

Late last Friday night, as he stood in the frigid November air and began to address his football players, the normally poised Blair Hardin exulted.

It wasn’t the kind of over-the-top exultation that implied that Hardin’s Porter Ridge High School squad already had achieved its ultimate goal. No, the Pirates coach was well aware that his team simply had reached the Class 4A state championship game by defeating Mooresville, 34-28, on this night.

Sure, there’s a danger in coming across too excited after a semifinal victory. Players can become complacent, thinking their mission is complete.

But as Hardin stood there last week, it was obvious that he wasn’t worried about complacency with this group of teenagers, whom he had rescued from a moribund existence four years ago. Hardin wanted each player to know exactly what the Pirates had accomplished by making it to the Saturday, Dec. 3, title game in Winston-Salem, where they’ll play Laurinburg’s Scotland High at 7 p.m.

So he glanced seemingly at every face on the team and pointed his finger.

“You’re a program now!” Hardin shouted as the players let out primal screams.

The coach’s words resonated with the players. The year before Hardin took over the team, the Pirates had been 2-9 and struggled to keep fans in their seats beyond the band’s halftime performance. There was apathy among players, and many of the best athletes in the school didn’t dare go near the football field.

But after the Nov. 25 win over Mooresville, the Pirates had a sparkling 14-0 record, and scores of fans were lingering in the stadium long after the game was complete, exulting right along with Hardin and his players as they made plans to caravan to Winston-Salem.

“It’s just incredible,” Porter Ridge’s normally poised pocket passer Lee McNeil said, as he tried to keep tears from streaming down his face. “We’re all family, and we all work hard. I don’t even know if words can describe this right now. It’s just absolutely incredible. I’ve just got to give all the glory to God and just take it one day at a time and get ready to play in the state championship.

“All of us worked so hard to get to this point. We got so close last year, and we just wanted to get another chance. Thankfully, we got that chance, and maybe we can finally get over the ultimate hump this time.”

That’s the other thing that made last week’s win so emotional: Unlike many teams, the Pirates were able to make up for a heartbreaking loss in the previous year’s state semifinal game.

And they came through with some considerable odds stacked against them.

In 2010, the Pirates had won their first 14 games of the season, having caught many people by surprise with their sudden ascension among the state’s top teams.  Then, in the state semifinals, they took their home field and lost to Davie High, 21-14. And while there certainly was no shame in that, especially considering Porter Ridge’s history, it was a numbing blow.

What was worse, though, few people outside the program thought the Pirates had a chance to get that far again – at least so soon. After all, as the 2011 season dawned, they had just four starters returning: McNeill, receiver Jordan Oakley, defensive end Justin Oldja and lineman Thomas Labianca. Everything else was new, including the all-important offensive backfield.

Still, they put it all together and made magic this season.

Najee Davis and Chris Duffy combined to become one of the best rushing combos in the state, as both players have a chance to eclipse 1,000 yards this season. The reliable McNeill used a combination of receiving targets, anchored by Oakley’s 10 touchdowns catches, to score points in bundles. And a defense that featured tackling machines such as Nick Vagnone (88 tackles), Bruce Randall (72), Shane Burns (69 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Luke Bayly (66 tackles) helped produce a unit that allows just 14 points a game.

So last Friday night, when Mooresville began to chip away at the Pirates’ 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, they were in position to finish the deal. And when Duffy, who doubles as a defensive back, intercepted a Mooresville pass with mere seconds remaining in the game, it was official.

And when their coach reminded them that they had just exhibited the traits of a bona fide program, it touched a nerve with them. Every Pirate.

“To hear something like that is awesome,” said Oakley, a senior. “It means we finally made it somewhere. All these years, back when we weren’t too good, we dreamed of getting to this point. So all the hard work, all the great coaching and great teammates around us – we finally are at the point that we wanted to be four years ago when I came into this program.

“Even though we only had four starters back, Coach Hardin’s such a great coach that he makes our players better, no matter who they are. It doesn’t matter if they’re young or old. He just coached us up. It’s like he said: ‘program.’ That’s what we were going to be. Even when we lose people, we still have to perform.”

But Hardin is quick to mention that his “program” comment wasn’t just about last Friday night. It was about steamy summer days, when the players’ parents and classmates weren’t watching but the teenagers were out on the Porter Ridge practice fields, staving off exhaustion and thirst. It was about days spent in the weight room, and it was about seeing all that hard work come together during Friday nights of the past four years.

Last Friday simply was confirmation, and it prompted him to quote from the book of wrestling legend Ric Flair.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Hardin said. “And our kids have responded really well to that approach. To establish yourself, you have to beat the Mount Tabors, the Mooresvilles, the (Asheville) Reynoldses – and we’ve done that the past few years.

“So I’m just thrilled for (our players) right now. They deserve this. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. It was tough. We had to take a step back and kind of repair before we could build. But we just rolled our sleeves up and started working. We were able to build these kids’ confidence.

“And with a win like this,” Hardin added, “it’s only going to get better.”

Having had the weekend to digest their momentous victory over Mooresville, the Pirates were focused finishing the deal. They know knocking off undefeated Scotland will be an arduous task. Despite all the joy and all the celebrating of last week’s win, they still have one more monumental step to take.

“All that means is there’s more hard work for us to do,” senior lineman Tim Dose said. “That’s all we’ve done this season, and we’re not going to change.”

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