Talent has taken Science Hill to a 5-0 start and a rare No. 5 state ranking.
But it is unity, head coach Stacy Carter says, that is necessary to get the Hilltoppers where they need to be.
With a bye scheduled this week at the season’s midway point, Carter reflected Wednesday morning on an undefeated start that’s included home victories against two-time defending state champion Greeneville and Morristown West and a win at Elizabethton.
The relatively smooth transition of first-year starting quarterback Reed Hayes helped Carter’s Hilltoppers navigate the choppy waters of personal agendas.
“We’ve got some talent,” Carter said. “It (reaching our potential) depends on how good we get as a team and how we play together and, basically, wanting the guy beside of you to do just as well or better than you. And that’s kind of our theme.
“And you really have to believe that. I mean, that’s easy to say, but this day and age, people just don’t believe that. But if you can get people to buy into that concept or conform to that concept, you’re gonna have a good bunch.”
Carter said losing receiver Tre’vonn Fields, who transferred to Lynchburg’s Virginia Episcopal School (primarily to play basketball for former Virgina star guard Curtis Staples), wasn’t part of the adversity, although he cringed when he heard he was losing what was shaping up to be a go-to receiver.
“He was a fine kid,” Carter said.
Hayes, a 6-foot-1, senior didn’t play last season until joining the team as a receiver in the fourth game. He was a top threat by the time the Hilltoppers were winning their first playoff game in a decade, and he’s adapted with seemingly similar ease at the more demanding quarterback spot.
Hayes is 40-of-62 passing for 996 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception, which came on a Hail Mary heave into the end zone on the last play of a half. Hayes has also rushed for 261 yards and four TDs, and those rushing yards are factoring in sacks.
“Reed can throw it … and he runs pretty darn good,” Carter said.
Despite Hayes’ start, senior Will Adams could arguably be the team MVP at this point. He’s rushed 57 times for 364 yards and six TDs. He has five receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. And he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a TD at a crucial moment in the second half against Morristown West.
The tireless Adams is also an invaluable defensive back.
“You know, you hear about (Dobyns-Bennett’s Devaun) Swafford and (Malik) Foreman all the time,” Carter said, “but he’s the same deal , you know, but just at a different place. I mean, you’ve seen them on a basketball court together. There’s not a lick of a difference. …
“Will’s a big-time athlete. He’s good at catching it, running it. Plus, he makes all kind of tackles from free safety. He’s taking on a big load back there.”
Adams and Hayes are generating recruiting interest. So are hard-hitting sacks co-leaders Grant Janeway and O’Ryen Scott. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Janeway has three catches for 75 yards and a TD.
Carter has been generally pleased with an offensive line anchored by Ty Jones and Nick Lindsay, but he’s eager to get fellow senior Anthony Head back next week at Sullivan South. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Head suffered a deep thigh bruise at Sullivan Central in the third game of the season.
The leadership and productivity of Damien Hayes and Bryson DeJesus has been a constant in the defensive front seven, and Carter is excited about the future of 6-foot-5, 330-pound sophomore Keenan Anderson and 6-foot-2, 235-pound freshman defensive end Quintin Alibocus.
Sophomore Malik McGue might be the most entertaining Hilltopper to watch with the ball in his hands. His team-high 10 receptions have been good for 240 yards and three TDs. He also averaged 8.7 yards on seven rushes, which includes a 15-yard TD, and had a long punt return for a TD negated by a penalty. He’s also starting at cornerback and has an interception.
The other starting cornerback, senior Trey Webster, came out for football for the first time this year. Not that you’d know it. His long interception return was arguably the most critical play against Morristown West, and he’s continued to mature at receiver with Fields gone. Webster had a 57-yard TD reception in the first quarter against David Crockett.
“Trey Webster, that’s been a phenomenal job that he’s done,” Carter said. “He’s played as solid at corner as you can play. … And I think Jordan Olson’s come up big (at receiver).”
Improvements in the running game, which has been aided by Chance Pierce (17 carries, 124 yards, three TDs) and continued progress with team chemistry could prove to be a dynamic concoction for the Hilltoppers.
“The nagging thing is, can we get the running game smoother and more consistent,” Carter said. “Right now we’re about 50-50 (on runs and passes). As much as I like to pass it, I’d like to be able to run the ball a little bit more than throwing the ball, really, in a perfect world, because that’s for-sure yards, especially down the stretch.
“So I’d like to work on the running game a little bit more, but the biggest thing is getting closer as a team and caring about each other and loving each other. I mean, that’s the type of teams that are gonna be good down the road, and I know that. … It’s not like we don’t have the horses. But if you don’t have that other stuff you’re not gonna be real, real successful.”
Carter knows — perhaps better than anyone — the season will be measured on success, or lack thereof, against Dobyns-Bennett, which is ranked No. 3 in the state and hasn’t lost to Science Hill since 1994. In fact, some Science Hill fans would gladly take a 1-4 finish to the season if they could pick the victory.