INDIAN TRAIL Greg Neuendorf has to maintain a careful balance.
He’ll put his stamp on the Porter Ridge High football team as he enters his first year as head coach, but he also wants to maintain the momentum of one of the top programs in the state the past three seasons.
The Pirates have gone 40-5 in that time, including back-to-back 4A state runner-up finishes (2011 and 2012).
Neuendorf says his formula for success is simple.
“For me, football never changes,” said Neuendorf, who was 23-24 in his four seasons at Cox Mill High in Cabarrus County.
“It all comes down to blocking and tackling and all the little things in a game. … I know this is a well-coached team that knows how to win. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but I think you can always get better.”
This team is eager to prove it belongs among the state’s elite. The memory of last year’s 39-38 state title game loss to New Bern, with the game-winning score coming 26 seconds before the game ended, is its biggest motivation.
“That game is on our minds every time we hit the practice field, the weight room or just about anything we do,” said Porter Ridge middle linebacker Nick Vagnone. “It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night.
“But it’s also in the past now, and we have to move on to a new season.”
The Pirates also will try to prove they belong in their new conference, the Southwestern 4A, with Butler, Independence, East Mecklenburg, Garinger, Myers Park and Rocky River.
“A lot of the teams in that league are probably saying, ‘This is the Southwestern 4A, you aren’t ready for this,’ ” Neuendorf said.
“Of course, we want to say we are ready, but we will have to prove it on the field.”
“Just like anyone else, we plan to win it,” Vagnone said. “We look forward to playing the big-name teams. We’ve waited for four years to get the opportunity to play these teams.”
The Pirates’ effort begins with their constantly potent triple-option offense, which produced 253 yards rushing and 36 points per game last year.
Senior tailback Jerrick Robbins – who rushed for 1,313 yards and 13 touchdowns, including 175 yards on the ground in the state final – becomes the main threat on offense.
Senior Ron Hedd (5-foot-11, 205 pounds), Vagnone (6-foot, 200 pounds) and Grant Vandervoort (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) will carry the ball at fullback.
The Pirates have two strong quarterbacks, junior Isaiah Hicklin and senior Zach Danielson (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), who both saw action last year.
Hicklin started during the playoff run after Danielson got hurt.
Both will look to senior Luke Bayly (6-foot-2, 215 pounds, 42 catches for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns) as a target. They’ll also throw to A.J. Barrett (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and Casey Hardison (5-foot-11, 180 pounds).
The biggest question is the offensive line, where all five starters graduated. Senior Yanick Mendez (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) will start at left tackle, but the rest of the positions are open.
The Porter Ridge defense allowed 11 points per contest last season, and there are five starters returning. Vagnone (104 tackles, seven sacks) is the unit’s leader. He’ll have Hedd and Vandervoort joining him as the outside backers in the Pirates’ 4-3 defense.
Senior Devyn Cunningham (5-foot-10, 210 pounds, seven sacks) is the top defensive lineman returning. He will line up on the edge and in the middle at times, with Bayly, also a returning starter, at defensive end.
The Pirates secondary also will have experience with five seniors.
The group includes Dalton Ames (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Hardison and Robbins at corner, while Barrett, Tyler Harrell (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) and Robbins play safety.
The Pirates will get every opportunity to prove themselves early. They open Aug. 23 at home against Mount Tabor.
On Sept. 27 they will face Sun Valley, followed by conference games against Independence and Butler.
Note: This story originally appeared in South Charlotte News/newsofsouthcharlotte.com
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less