Harding High won its first state championship since 1953 last season. Since then, the Rams have graduated their star quarterback, Braheam Murphy, and watched as Sam Greiner, the 2017 Associated Press N.C. Coach of the Year, left to take a job at Harrisburg Hickory Ridge.
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But there’s still plenty of talent at Harding - and plenty of desire, too.
The Rams aim to prove 2017 wasn’t a fluke. And it doesn’t hurt that, among the 10 starters and 21 lettermen returning is 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker/running back Quavaris Crouch, who just might be the best high school football player in America.
“The team is looking real good,” said first-year Rams coach Robert Cross, a former college assistant at Johnson C. Smith. “We’re expecting to pick up where we left off and not go backwards. The kids are real receptive to what we’re doing. ...We’ll keep putting it together, day-by-day, and when it’s time to go we’ll get those kids on that platform and let them shine.”
Cross knows what his job is. From 1990-2016, Harding had more new coaches (12) than winning seasons (two).
Greiner went from 1-10 in 2015, Crouch’s freshman season, to 5-7 in 2016 to 14-1 last year, when Harding had three players make all-state. CNN sent a crew to their state championship celebration and did a story on their journey.
Ever heard of the saying “from the out-house to the penthouse?”
That’s Harding. And Cross wants to make sure the Rams - ranked in severeal national top 100 preseason polls - don’t go back.
“National rankings in the preseason,” Cross said, “that’s about what happened last year. I preach it to the kids, ‘What happened in 2017 happened in 2017; 2018 is a new year, so all the rankings and preseason hoopla and all the build-up, it doesn’t mean anything.
“’All that matters is what you do when those lights come on.”
Cross said he has at least eight Division I recruits this season. They include:
▪ Sophomore defensive end Tylon Dunlap (6-0, 230), who has offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
▪ Senior offensive lineman Barutti Mazangu (6-0, 315) and Tristen Johnson (6-2, 250).
▪ Junior running back/defensive back Maliek Faust (5-11, 175), who has offers from schools Duke, Penn State and South Carolina.
And, then, there’s Crouch, the reigning N.C. Gatorade Player of the Year. He ran for 3,283 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
“We’re young,” Crouch said of his 2018 team, “and I’ve got to do my best to rally them and lead them again and get everybody on the same page. We’ve got a new coach, a new staff coming in. It’s kind of different, different terminology and how he wants things done.
“So I’m trying to keep everybody focused and keeping them working hard but being respectful to the head coach and not stepping on his toes.”
Crouch and Harding have a tough assignment Friday, opening at N.C. 4AA state championship contender Hough. In the first five weeks, the Rams will also face two more elite Carolinas powers in Mallard Creek and Gaffney (S.C.).
So it won’t take long to see how good these new-look Rams are.
“That schedule, man,” coach Cross said. “Gosh, dog. We don’t get (any) breaks. No days off. We’re in it now, and that’s fine. We’re that team that everybody’s gunning for.”
Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of previews on all of the team’s ranked in the Observer’s preseason Sweet 16 poll.
HARDING HIGH RAMS
Head coach: Robert Cross (1st year as Harding head coach).
2017 record: 14-1 (6-0 in the SoMeck 7 conference).
2018 conference: SoMeck 7 conference
Key players: Quavaris Crouch, Sr., RB (6-0, 225); Dekeris Thompson, Jr., RB (5-10, 175); Naquan Everette, Jr., DB/WR (5-7, 165); Tristen Johnson, Sr., OL/DL (6-2, 250); Maliek Faust, Jr., DB/RB (5-11, 185); Barutti Mazangu, Sr., OL/DL (6-0, 315); Chris Powe, Sr., LB (5-10, 238); Jamie Bright, Sr., LB (5-11 210); Tylon Dunlap, Sr., DE/LB (6-0, 220); Jay Houston, Jr., DB (6-1, 195); Makel Fenner, Jr., WR (5-9, 168); Daniel Hunt, Jr., WR (6-5, 175).
Outlook: After winning its first state championship since 1953, Harding returns 10 starters, 21 lettermen and one of the nation’s best players (Quavaris Crouch). Harding will also debut a new coach, former J.C. Smith assistant Robert Cross, who promises he won’t change much of what made Harding so successful last season.