ECH considered next-to-best in revamped PAC-6
East Chapel Hill’s football program became competitive last season, going 5-6 overall and 3-3 in the PAC-6, earning the league’s fourth and final playoff slot.
Even a blowout loss in the first round of the state playoffs to perennial power Scotland County failed to diminish the Wildcats in the eyes of their peers. Other PAC-6 coaches are picking the Cats as the second best team in the conference this season.
Bill Renner took the ECH reins in 2010 after back-to-back 1-11 and 1-10 seasons and improved each year — from 1-10 in 2010 to 3-8 in 2011 and 5-6 a year ago. But Renner departed this spring, resurfacing as offensive coordinator at Northwood.
In his stead, Jon Sherman has been promoted from within. He credits Renner with putting the program on solid footing, footing that should allow Sherman and ECH to climb in the PAC-6 standings this season, at least to within shouting distance of three-time defending champ Hillside.
“I think we can be competitive in all our games, and I’m flattered that other coaches think so highly of us,” Sherman said. “But we’re all chasing Hillside.”
Wildcats fans might be surprised at one major change Sherman has in store this season. Count on the Cats to run the ball. This at a program where “ground game” has pretty much meant running after a catch the last two seasons.
In 2011, East running backs carried the ball a total of 33 times for 108 yards — on the season.
Last year, 6-1, 235-pound Colby Owens averaged 6.2 yards per carry, Sherman said. But he only carried it 106 times in the regular season.
That will change as Sherman intends to use two backs on a regular basis behind returning sophomore quarterback Connor Stough — a potential star in his own right.
While Owens — “He’s our guy,” Sherman said — is a fixture at back when not too worn down from doubling as a defensive end, the Cats have several other talented candidates vying for playing time in Jeremy Hubbard (5-4, 152), Chris Fowler (5-9, 170) and Javaughn Davis (5-7, 176).
Stough (6-0, 175) is a rising star for the Cats.
He started at slot receiver as a freshman last year, was injured and became the starting quarterback on his return to the roster because of an injury to starter Ben Jones. If Stough’s readiness was ever in question, it wasn’t after his practice prep for his first start — against Hillside — consisted of a Thursday afternoon practice walk-through.
Stough had the underdog Cats within hailing distance of an upset the next night, trailing 20-17 at halftime at Hillside before the Hornets pulled away to a 54-23 win.
“Stough played amazing in that first half,” Sherman said. He added that the then-freshman continued his strong play in the following three weeks and looks for him to star this year.
“He can run this offense. He can throw the ball. He can run it. He’s pretty amazing,” Sherman said.
Stough will have a talented but inexperienced group of receivers on the other end of his passes this fall.
The only returning regular from last year is junior Arkavius Parks, a 6-3, 173 athlete who doubles as an ECH basketball player. He had 27 grabs last fall. Joining him are four receivers with potential including Tykeem Woodard (6-1, 180), Jack Hankins (6-2, 180), John Graham (6-0, 140) and Justin Douglas (5-10, 145).
Woodard, a senior, is another ECH basketball player. He hasn’t played football since his freshman year — at Carrboro. Graham played two years ago, but sat out last seson with an injury. Hankins, a senior, is playing football for the first time and has been turning heads in the summer camp and 7-on-7 circuit.
“We’re blessed with some pretty good talent, but we need to see how they (the receivers) adjust to playing in games,” Sherman said.
The Cats have a potentially strong offensive line, but again some new starters might take time to gel.
Left tackle Dan Evers (6-3, 280) is a two-year returning starter who’s the obvious leader of the line along with three-year returning starter Anthony Burns (5-11, 270) at right guard.
Junior right tackle Ron Siemienski (5-11, 235) has been a pleasant surprise since joining the team with training camp underway. He’s a transfer from Connecticut who’s been a bright spot in scrimmages, according to Sherman.
Joining that trio are a pair of sophomores — undersized but gritty and smart center Camilio Hernandez (5-7, 200) and left guard Grant Booterbaugh (5-9, 210).
Defensively, the Cats’ unquestioned rock is tackle Chris Alston (6-0, 330) who’s ranked among the top 100 senior college prospects in the state. “He’s a helluva player,” Sherman said. “He wreaks havoc.”
Alston can also slide over to defensive end and to the offensive line as needed.
Joining Alston at tackle is newcomer Josh Baldwin (6-2, 270), a promising senior with excellent size and athletic ability who has starred for the Cats’ baseball team as a catcher.
At the ends are senior Vince Harrington (5-11, 240) and Owens.
The linebacker corps is long quickness and skill. Sherman likes the group led by star seniors Ian Levin (6-0, 203) and Armond Berry (6-0, 180) and junior Tyler Hill (6-0, 180).
Owens also slides back from defensive end as needed.
In the secondary, Izzy Settles and Nikita Orlov will be at safety and the corners will include Will Rivenbark, Brandon Miles and Woodard. Parks is the top backup at all four secondary slots.
“Parks backs up everyone,” Sherman said.
NOTES — The PAC-6 lost one of its four automatic playoff berths when the reclassification to 3-A of last year’s runner-up, Southern, left the league with only six teams.