Though Charlotte is just across the Cabarrus-Mecklenburg County line, Hickory Ridge football coach Marty Paxton feels that Harrisburg is still far enough removed from the big city that his school’s fans get a taste of small town high school football.
The Ragin’ Bulls may play in a tiny town but they can score some big-time points.
Last season, Hickory Ridge won at least 10 games for the second time in three seasons, averaging over 35 points per game with its triple-option offense. Now established as one of the best programs in Cabarrus County, the Bulls’ senior class may be poised to win its second conference championship before it graduates.
Even though the Bulls won the South Piedmont 3A crown in 2012, this might be the first season Hickory Ridge is a preseason frontrunner to capture a conference title. The Bulls are ranked No. 14 in The Sweet 16.
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“Barring injury, I think we’ll be very competitive,” said Paxton, Hickory Ridge’s only coach in its nine-year history. “I don’t think there’s a runaway team (in the conference).”
Hickory Ridge returns four starters on defense and five on offense and two more that were part-time offensive starters. The Bulls advanced to the second round of the state playoffs, matching its longest post-season run since the school opened in 2007.
Aside from losses to Concord and West Rowan that bookended its conference schedule, Hickory Ridge had a strong run through the SPC. The Bulls finished second to Concord which did not lose a league game in 2014 and 2013.
The Bulls played their share of close games in 2014, posting a 3-2 record in games decided by seven points or less. They finished with a 10-3 overall mark (6-2, SPC), falling a game short of the program’s 11-win record in 2012.
Hickory Ridge’s biggest loss from last year’s graduating class was all-purpose player Nate Mullen. The five-feet, eight inch, 165-pound dynamo with breakaway speed was a three-time all-conference player and was twice named the SPC’s Special Teams Player of the Year. He’s now beginning his freshman season with the Charlotte 49ers.
But plenty of senior weapons return including quarterback Greg Waslo, running back Jaylen Rudisell, who rushed for 1,493 yards last year, and six-feet, five inch, 270-pound tackle Will Putnam who has verbally committed to South Carolina.
“Obviously we lost a lot of seniors on the defensive side of ball and we lost Nate Mullen,” said Putnam. “We’ve had seniors step up for our team before. I think it will cover the deficit. I think Waslo and Rudisell are really going to help.”
Waslo, the leader of Hickory Ridge’s attack they call the “pistol triple-option”, rushed for 976 yards in 2014 and passed for 1,274. He completed 57 percent of his passes but the ten he threw for touchdowns equaled the number of interceptions he threw.
Waslo’s versatility and decision-making ability keep defenses off balance. He had five games in which he rushed at least 15 times but also had six games of 15-or-more pass attempts.
“My role in that is to keep everyone calm,” said Waslo. “With the fast place we play we sometimes get ahead of ourselves. My job is to run the offense soundly and to keep everyone together. Being the quarterback in a triple option offense, you have to be able to distribute the ball. We have a bunch of good athletes around me.”
Also returning on offense are guard Mason Mullen, slot Petey Reaves and part-time starters Kevin Wooten, a slot, and receiver Jourdan Salluom. All of them are seniors.
Defensively, the Bulls lost all three of their starting linebackers but return two starters on the line and two in the secondary. Senior Jared Mincey, a returner at safety, feels this year’s unit could gel quickly despite having to replace so many key players.
“We have some pieces in place,” said Mincey, a three-year varsity player. “But we have a lot of new guys that should be able to step up. I think our strength is like last year: we can move laterally and hustle to the ball. Our tenacity should also be a strong point.”
Also returning for the Bulls, which play a base 3-4 defense, are senior cornerback Darius Burley and linemen Jack Wallace, a junior, and C.J. Ajakaiye, a senior.
Setting the tone for the 2015 season will be the team’s first “First Hit Night” on Aug. 7 at the school’s stadium. Celebrating in a carnival-like environment, the public is invited participate in face painting, raffles, and a chance to meet the players, followed by a chance to observe drills and an intra-squad scrimmage.