Hickory Ridge aims to win SPC

Four years ago, the Hickory Ridge football program was just an idea on paper. Now, after three years on the field, the Ragin' Bulls are on the verge of challenging for a conference championship.

The first seniors class at the school will try to complete its ascent from worst to first this year.

Last season, the team finished 7-6 overall, including 5-2 in conference play to finish tied for second in the South Piedmont Conference with Northwest Cabarrus just behind A.L. Brown.

The Ragin' Bulls also won their first playoff game, winning 25-6 at North Forsyth before falling to Northern Guilford in the second round.

Now, Hickory Ridge feels like it's their time to shine.

"The days of winning one more game than last are over," said Hickory Ridge football coach Marty Paxton. "Our expectations are to win a conference championship and make it further in the playoffs."

If Hickory Ridge is going to be better, the Ragin' Bulls will have to get a similar effort from all-everything tailback Brian Baltimore.

Baltimore, who stands 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, rushed for 1,924 yards and 20 touchdowns last season and could eclipse those numbers this year. Baltimore, who is being recruited by most Big South and Southern Conference schools in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, has 4.5 speed and can break a run at any time.

A lot of Baltimore's success could be related to senior Cody Cothren's ability to play quarterback at the varsity level. Cothren, who played wing back and slot receiver last year, moves under center mainly because he is one of the team's top athletes. Paxton hopes Baltimore's presence will open up holes for Cothren in the spread offense.

"We think Cody will open up a whole new dimension for our team," said Paxton. "I think in the end, it could also give Baltimore a lot more room to run as well because of the threat Cody will pose with his arm and legs."

When Cothren uses his arm, his main target will be senior Jacolby Thompson, who has good size and speed.

The one question offensively is the line, where only 6-foot-6, 240-pound tackle Danny Book returns. How fast the Ragin' Bulls can retool the other four positions could tell how good their offense will be.

On the defensive side of the ball is a different story, where Hickory Ridge should be stout, even though they are switching into a 3-5 formation for the first time.

Senior linebacker Dillon Burdette will continue to wreck offenses like he did in 2009, making 87 tackles and 11 sacks.

Danny Book, at 6-foot-6, will man the middle linebacker spot and should be a beast against the running game.

The defensive line will be younger, but senior Noble Ajakaiye will lead the way as the only returning starter.

The defensive backfield will be another strong point for the Ragin' Bulls as seniors Dale Brown and Ryan McGill return to solidify the unit. Brown and McGill, both 6-feet tall, have the size and range to make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

But no matter how many players return, Paxton and Hickory Ridge feel like this could be their opportunity to win the SPC.

The Ragin' Bulls were agonizingly close last year when a late-season upset loss to Concord left them just one game short of a first-place tie with 3A powerhouse A.L. Brown.

"Opportunities like this don't come along all the time," Paxton said of his team's chances to contend for an SPC title. "We feel like this is a big year for our program. We want to make it one we remember."