DURHAM — If Hillside fans had their way, the Hornets would skip regular-season games and head right into the football playoffs.
Hillside’s sizeable fan base looked ready for November last week. About 300 people paid $5 apiece to sit in Russell Blunt Memorial Stadium and watch the Hornets host former conference rival Chapel Hill in a preseason scrimmage.
“We have the best fans around,” Hillside coach Antonio King said. “They may show up late, depending on the opponent, but they’re going to come out and support us.”
The Hornet fans liked what they saw: one of the state’s biggest, fastest teams looking every bit like it was ready to open play Friday at New Bern.
Conversely, Chapel Hill coaches liked what they saw, too.
“As a staff, we’re pleased with how we did tonight against Hillside,” Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh said. “We’re fortunate to be able to scrimmage against a strong, impressive program like Hillside, so our kids can see what a top program in our state looks like.”
Hillside, which drew more than 170 would-be players to its opening workouts in August, dressed about 50 players in game uniforms, furthering the impression the Hornets treated the scrimmage like a preseason game. Chapel Hill dressed out in practice jerseys and approached the scrimmage in a more workman-like fashion.
With the stadium lights and scoreboard turned on and concessions opened for the fans, the teams took three turns running 10 plays on offense, then went through about 25 minutes of live game-like plays, moving up and down the field and turning over the ball on downs if they failed to convert a first down.
Looking for a starting quarterback among three chief candidates – Grant Deselm, Luke Christy and Kevin Guskiewicz – the CHHS staff freely substituted QBs, sometimes in mid-drive.
Marsh said he would decide on a starter sometime this weekend, following a second scrimmage Friday night against Apex.
Chapel Hill went against Hillside without all-conference running back Darius Allen, who had yet to practice the eight days required by NCHSAA regulations before a football player can go through full-contact drills.
Even without Allen, 3A Chapel Hill drove the ball well on several possessions against the bigger 4A team. Each of the QB candidates was able to move the team in turn, and Christy threw a touchdown pass during Chapel Hill’s first 10-play series.
Working with a new offensive coordinator, Adam Sanders, the Tigers also displayed a pistol set that seemed effective.
Likewise, in a reversal of the common wisdom about early practices, Hillside’s offense appeared to perform ahead of the defense. The Hornets scored touchdowns on both of their first two possessions – a 20-yard run by Donte Thomas-Williams and a 25-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Nas Forte-Ferguson to Trevion Thompson. Forte-Ferguson and Thompson later connected on a 70-yard TD pass.
But the CHHS defense came up big several times, with lineman Noah Layden and others making tackles for losses and cornerback Dan Govert picking off a Hillside pass.
“Defensively, until we got a little tired, we held our own on defense,” Marsh said. “They gutted us for one big run and one big pass play where the secondary had a breakdown. But we did very well in the (10) scripted plays. We tackled well as a team, and came up to the line for some solid plays.”