Great Expectations

This year’s Pirates aren’t the same team that played in the last two 4A state championships. But that doesn’t mean they’re not contenders for a state title.

Seniors Nick Vagnone and Jerrick Robbins, veterans of the 2011-12 state runner-up teams, hope to make this season just as successful.

Seniors Nick Vagnone and Jerrick Robbins, veterans of the 2011-12 state runner-up teams, hope to make this season just as successful.

For the last two years, the Porter Ridge football team has turned in dominating regular season performances and advanced all the way to the state championship, only to suffer disappointing defeats on both occasions. The success over the past few years has built a strong name for the Pirate program and has left a lot of weight resting on the shoulders of future teams.

In 2011, under the leadership of coach Blair Hardin, the Pirates breezed through the regular season and playoffs without a loss until they faced Scotland in the state championship at Wake Forest University. The Pirates suffered their first and only defeat of the season, losing 42-16.

Last season, the Pirates turned in another impressive regular season and advanced to the state title game for the second consecutive year. In a cruel twist of fate, they had their heartbreak replayed as they fell to New Bern in a one-point loss.

This year, things couldn’t be more different for the Porter Ridge program.

They have a new coach, with Greg Neuendorf taking over after Hardin’s successful tenure. They’re in a new conference, moving from Southern Carolina to the mighty Southwestern 4A, a league which houses a collection of several of the top Class 4-AA teams in the state. They have new starters, and from an outsider’s perspective, it would seem this young team of fresh faces would mean a rebuilding season for the Pirates.

But the biggest challenge so far hasn’t been overcoming the newness; the Pirates currently boast a 6-2 record indicating they’re more than capable of adjusting to change. The biggest challenge has been proving they belong in the Southwestern 4A conference, alongside football powers Butler, Independence and Rocky River.

Senior running back Jerrick Robbins witnessed first-hand the success of the last two seasons and the disappointment of falling short in the state championship game. He was a crucial piece of the Pirates’ running attack last year and racked up over 1,300 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

But he isn’t concerned with building up his own stats, despite his remarkable numbers from last year. He’s focused on proving that Porter Ridge belongs among the Class 4-AA football elites.

“I think people are still brushing us over,” Robbins said “So we just have to go out there and prove them wrong, and we like doing that. We like to be the underdog. We play better that way.”

The Pirates were on their way to doing just that until they hit a bump in the road against Sun Valley on Sept. 2.

The Porter Ridge defense struggled to contain Spartan running back Albert Funderburke, who torched the Pirates with 22 carries for 289 yards, 48 receiving yards, three rushing touchdowns and added a receiving touchdown.

“They outplayed us, and they have a very good running back,” said Neuendorf. “We were up by 14 in the second half, but we didn’t play good football. They did, and they beat us. It’s as simple as that.”

For Robbins, the Sun Valley loss isn’t an indicator of a Pirate lack of talent. He cited last year’s regular season loss to Weddington, which Porter Ridge overcame and advanced to the state title game for the second consecutive season.

“It’s whatever. It doesn’t matter what people are saying. Look what happened last year.” Robbins said. “We just do what we do. We play better after a loss. We proved that last year, and we’re proving it again this year. At the end of the season, we’ll see what people say.”

Robbins isn’t alone in his quest to prove Porter Ridge belongs. He has the help of fellow 6-foot, 200-pound middle linebacker Nick Vagnone, who leads his team with 81 tackles despite missing a game earlier this season. Like Robbins, Vagnone is confident that the Pirates have what it takes to compete with the state’s elite, regardless of conference delegations.

“I enjoy having a target on our back,” he said. “It makes us work harder.

“I like being the hunters, not the hunted. It’s a little different in this conference because now we are the hunted, being the new team. But… football is football no matter what conference you’re in or where you’re playing. It’s been different but it’s a good different and it’s a good move for this program.”

Following the disappointing loss to Sun Valley, Porter Ridge regained their early-season momentum by defeating Independence in the first conference matchup of the season.

Independence led, 34-27, with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Porter Ridge quarterback Isaiah Hicklin completed a six-yard touchdown pass to Luke Bayly to bring the score to 34-33. With time expiring, Vagnone rushed for a two-point conversion and sealed the Pirates’ dramatic win.

“It was about confidence,” Vagnone said, in reference to the final drive. “I knew our guys would do their job. I knew (center) Eric Hogan was going to make the snap, the guys in front of me were going to block, Coach

Neuendorf was going to call the right play and the way things unfolded was really good for us. It could’ve gone either way in that situation but at the end of the night, I’m really proud of the way we played and pushed through all four quarters.”

“The kids fought the whole time,” Neuendorf said. “They could’ve easily given up, but they didn’t. They fought. The two-point play is something we practice every week. It’s an automatic, if they don’t defend the formation, then we’re going for it. And that’s what we did.”

The win was a statement to the rest of the conference, as well as the state. For anyone with doubts about their ability to compete in Southwestern 4A play, it quickly became clear they were in for the long haul.

With three weeks left in regular season, the Pirates still must face Butler and Rocky River. Coming away with wins against both will be challenging, but would solidify an outright conference championship, which would be a huge testament to the Porter Ridge program and provide the justification they’ve been working toward all season.

“We’re excited to play against them,” Robbins said. “I know I am. I know everyone on the team is. We have to look at Butler and not be afraid of them. We aren’t going to look down.

“They’re a great team. They’re a great team just like Independence. But we know how to play football. They know we know how to play football. Everybody knows that and the ones who don’t, will.”

Vagnone is confident his Pirates will show up against both Rocky River and Butler in the coming weeks.

“I think I can win every game I go into,” he said. “Especially when I’m here playing with my boys. I’m excited for the opportunity to play Butler. I know our guys are going to play hard.”

With a new coach spearheading the Pirates’ plan of attack, he’s not getting caught up in the hype of a conference title, rankings or thoughts of another state championship appearance.

“It’s still Porter Ridge versus Butler, regardless of what the scores were the previous week, what the rankings are or what the records are,” Neuendorf said. “They have obviously proven they’ve had a lot of success over the last couple of years. They’ll know how to prepare and be ready. We will too. Regardless of what happens, I think it’s going to be a great football game.”

Defending the Porter Ridge name is crucial for the seniors who have come all to close to claiming a state title.

“We’ve grown high expectations around here,” Vagnone said. “The community has really high expectations in us. It’s a strong community, and a strong football community.”

“We want to win,” Robbins added. “We know what it takes to get there. We know it takes a lot of effort. It’s not going to be easy with the conference we are in. But we’re ready and I think we can win it all.”

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