By Craig Ladd
Mentioning Hillwood as a playoff football team seemed implausible three seasons ago.
Consider this … from 2005-2014 the program won only 16 games out of the 100 played.
That’s right … 16-84 over a 10-year period.
So when Kurt Page was named interim head coach in 2015 after Taylor Burks took an assistant coaching position at Oakland, having a team goal of making the playoffs was to naysayers outside the program, illogical.
In Page’s inaugural campaign, the Toppers earned a postseason invitation, which was its first since 2004.
Last season the goal was the same. Really? For a football program to earn a second consecutive playoff appearance after posting a .160 winning percentage over a 10-year stretch, was just absurd.
Well, the Hilltoppers reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Entering his third season as coach, Page is looking to write history. A third-straight trip to the playoffs would be a first at Hillwood.
Page has changed the mindset of the team since arriving and attributes that to a consistent approach.
“Consistency is the key for continued success on and off the field.
The ‘629 Brand’ has brought the consistency necessary for our players, community and shareholders to have a focus of the ‘What,’ ‘Why’ and ‘How’ we play the game. The consistency of this message has been a huge factor for our team to advance to the playoffs two years in a row.”
“Since 2015 we have set a standard for our team to strive together that each player performs for six seconds each play and be the first team to 29 points each game. We have not talked about winning and losing just for our players to ‘do your job,’” said Page, who coached Father Ryan to a state championship in 1997.
Page has more talent and experience leading into this season than the previous two and it all starts with quarterback Hale Page (5-11, 155).
Page (son of the head coach) threw for 1,779 yards and 17 TDs last season and was an all-region selection for an offense that averaged 24.6 points per game during the regular season. The talented signal caller is a year older and wiser, which should increase his touchdown efficiency and minimize turnovers.
Hillwood must replace its two leading rushers from last season in Lamont Jordan and Antonio Walton (568 yards and eight TDs in 2016).
Senior Cymitrius Addison (5-9, 160), who rushed for 44 yards on 11 carries a season ago, has claimed one of the open spots for his tenacious running style in 2106 and during preseason scrimmages. “Cymitrius really attacks the hole and always seems to move the pile forward,” said Page.
Juniors Avery Bass (5-9, 160), Jaylen Haddock (5-10, 180) and Eric Kinnard (5-9, 170) and senior Jerome Wine (6-1, 185), a transfer from South Carolina, are all vying for the other spot opposite Addison.
The passing game has the potential to be even better than last season, even though the Hilltoppers must replace two all-region selections in Kendrick Gordon and Kenneth Redd, who combined for 71 receptions for 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns. Junior wideout Kyle Carder (6-2, 190) has excellent playmaking ability, speed, leaping ability and power to be a special player. Playing alongside Carder will be sophomore TJ Spain (6-0, 180), who earned valuable minutes on the field in 2016, which resulted in six receptions for 51 yards. Spain is an equal to Carder talent-wise and should enjoy a productive season.Fellow sophomore James Gallaway (6-2, 150) will be pushing for playing time after snagging five catches for 41 yards last season, along with junior Zion Tate (5-10, 160), who could also see some action at running back. Junior Miller Baker (6-2, 200) will man the tight end position. Baker played mostly in the offensive line last year, but has shown excellent hands during the spring and fall practices.
If Wine doesn’t win the other spot in the backfield opposite Addison, look for him to get his share of action at tight end.
The offensive line is anchored by Chris Clark (6-2, 315). The senior was all- region last season as an offensive tackle but was moved to center to provide more production in the interior running game. Clark, who is an all-state candidate, is actively being recruited by some OVC schools.
“Moving Chris to center gives us a chance to run the ball up the middle, which opens up more facets to our offense,” said Page.
Seniors Andrew Black (5-9, 190) and Daniel Bonner (6-0, 200) are the likely starters at the tackle. Black saw action in two games last year, while Bonner played exclusively on defense. Look for senior Mohamed Mohamed (6-4, 255) and sophomore Phillip Morrison (6-0, 210) to push for playing time. The guards are slated to be senior Joseph Hinchman (5-11, 200) and junior Erie Lawrence (5-7, 185). Hinchman started along the offense line in a number of games last season, while Lawrence played only on defense.
Hillwood must replace kicker Liam Dougherty, who signed with Maryville.
Dougherty converted 33 of 35 extra points and was perfect on both of his field goal attempts, including a 44-yard game winner against Montgomery Central to clinch a playoff berth. Soccer player Donny Ha (5-9, 140) has emerged as the heir apparent to Dougherty. The senior has never played high school football but has displayed an accurate and powerful leg during practice.
Page is excited about the talented players that new offensive coordinator Corey Burton has to work with.
“We need to run the ball better this season,” Page said. “There were times we didn’t have an adequate ground game, but I’m very excited to see how Corey mixes and matches our guys. We have talented players in spots to make plays.”
The defensive side of the ball also has a new coordinator in Matthew Childress, who coached the defensive backs and linebackers last season.
Childress must replace linebacker Brandon Lyles, the team leader in tackles with 77 and tackles for loss with 16, but 11 players return that registered a tackle in 2016.
The defensive line welcomes back its leading tackler in senior Cameron Porter (5-11, 285). Porter totaled 37 stops last season to go along with 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The plugger in the middle also returns in senior Gabe Bosch (5-10, 310). His job is to clog the middle forcing a double team, which allows the linebackers to flow more freely to the ball carrier. Clark makes up the third returning starter on the interior line. He wracked up 17 tackles last season, including 4.5 for loss. The coaches also like the quickness of Hinchman, and he should see action spelling Porter, Bosch and Clark. The defensive ends will be manned by Baker and Black.
Baker saw limited action last season, but is rangy and should be disruptive to the passer with his rush. Black was productive in his brief play in 2016 registering three tackles but 1.5 of those were for losses.
The top returning tackler is inside linebacker Bonner, who is coming off an all-region season after registering 63 tackles, including five tackles for loss. Bonner showcased his all-around ability last season by also finishing second on the team in passes defensed.
“Daniel has built himself into an enforcer for us. Our defense will be improved this season and he will be one of the reasons why,” said Page.
The other starting inside ’backer will be Lawrence, who had six tackles as a backup last year. Although Lawrence is small in stature, he makes up for it with his quickness and striking ability.
On the outside, Carder and Wine are the favorites to start. Both will be asked to rush the passer as well as cover receivers in the flat. Carder is arguably the most athletic player on the team and Wine is not far behind. Spain will be pushing for playing time, also. There will not be a drop off in athleticism when he’s in the game.
The secondary is loaded with experience in starting corners Addison and Kinnard.
Addison recorded 14 tackles last season with three for loss, two fumbles caused, a fumble return for a 29-yard TD against Hunters Lane, a pass defensed and a blocked a kick. Kinnard tallied eight tackles in 2016 with a pass defensed and also a blocked kick. Tate and Page, who are teammates on the Hillwood baseball team, will hold down the safety spots. Both have shown ball-hawking ability during scrimmages and preseason practices.
Page will take over the punting duties from the graduated Dougherty. The junior signal caller is not foreign to the duties having punted on seven occasions last season.
Not only will there be new players on the sideline this season, but also coaches. In addition to Burton, former Hillwood players Jack Jakobik and Clarence Wilson have been added to the staff.
Jakobik will be coaching the receivers, secondary and special teams, while Wilson is in charge of the defensive line. They join incumbents in quarterbacks coach Aaron Sparrow, who played QB collegiately at Norfolk State and in the Arena Football League, and veteran Metro coaches Gary Clarke and Steve Peden taking care of the offensive line. The Hilltoppers also welcome a new trainer from Vanderbilt Sports Medicine, Paul Mulloy.
“I’m really excited about our new staff additions. They are tremendous teachers of the game and in character development, which our players can benefit from on and off the field,” said Page.
The “629” mantra will continue for Page this season, as it has the last two years. “It’s the same battle cry we have had since I’ve been here in that each player performs for six seconds each play and to be the first team to 29 points each game.”
The Hilltoppers will play one last scrimmage on Friday night when it hosts Overton in the annual Metro Jamboree. It will provide the final tune up for the season opener on Friday, Aug. 18 at Columbia Central. This season Hillwood will be in Class 5A after being in 4A the last two seasons. Familiar Metro foes Hunters Lane and Glencliff join the Hilltoppers in Region 6, along with Beech, Gallatin and Hillsboro.
Hillwood Ready to Take Next Step