Injuries to key players, including linebacker Bradley Chubb and running back Richardre Bagley, set the Hawks back a few games, but their depth and leadership provided what was needed for a sixth straight winning season.
“When you lose kids like Chubb and Bagley like that for a few games, it adds up,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “We had some kids hurt last year that we couldn’t afford to have. Last season was not what we expected in terms of wins and losses. There was nothing we did wrong, but our depth, and I think our leadership, are a big part of why we still won games.
“Our coaching staff’s doing what they need to do, coaching the kids up, and our kids’ work ethic and attitude is another strength we have. They want to do well and they want to succeed.”
That attitude and work ethic will shift to a new group of athletes after Hillgrove graduated 32 players, its largest senior class in program history.
“Evan Engram is probably our biggest loss on offense,” Ironside said of the standout receiver. “He was a three-year starter for us, and now he’s at Ole Miss. He was our leading receiver last year and graduated as our career leader in catches and yards.
“We also lost Tolando Cleveland and Travon Simmons from our secondary, Justin Haney at linebacker and lineman Peyton Hewitt. We lost more on the defensive side of the ball, but we’re happy with what we saw during spring practice on both sides.”
Alex Garland, Cameron Kowalewski and Kelland Priest have looked good along the offensive line during spring drills.
“This line could be one of the better groups we’ve had,” Ironside said.
The unit will block for Bagley, who returns as the top back and is expected to be joined by Eric Montgomery in the Hawks’ backfield. Rising junior Elijah Ironside is also back as Hillgrove’s quarterback after splitting time with senior Troy Thompson last year.
“Elijah’s been around a bit,” said Phil Ironside of his son, who started as a sophomore. “He’s been in some heated games and understands the system really well. He has a lot of experience under his belt, as do a lot of the guys on offense, so it’s a matter of getting it all together.”
Elijah Ironside will have several targets at his disposal to choose from with the absence of Engram. The wide receiver corps is a “deep and solid group,” according to Phil Ironside, with interchangeable parts.
Justin Denton, Richard Hallman, Errol Breaux, Omar Black, Emanuel Beal and Zach Katz are all slated to see time as the position battle grows throughout the offseason and beyond.
Jaylen Reid is expected to anchor the defensive line, while LeMarkus Bailey is a three-year starter at defensive back. Philip Davis should solidify the linebackers.
“We just wanted to identify some kids that we wanted to take into our summer practices,” Ironside said of spring practice. “The kids had a really good attitude about everything and it flew by, but we got a lot done. It was a lot of fun.”