(Statistical Information Courtesy of Professor Briggs' archives)
HICKORY HORNETS 2020 FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW
Head Coach: Bill Dungee, 2nd season (7-4)
Last Year: 7-4 overall, Won Region title, advanced to District 10 semifinals
Entering the 2019 season, few expected the Hickory High School football team to be much of a factor on the Class 3A scene. But the Hornets refuted that line of thinking by winning their first three games, capturing the region title and advancing to the District 10 semifinals.
Now, Hickory will deal with the pressure of being one of the area's favorites after last year's 7-4 campaign. With nine offensive starters and six defensive starters back in the fold, the Hornets appear to have the firepower and experience needed to live up to lofty expectations.
The abnormal offseason circumstances that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic have likely had an effect on all athletic programs. According to second-year Hickory head coach Bill Dungee, the atypical offseason did not deter the players.
"Our mantra is 'Control What You Can Control,'" Dungee said. "We had our first team meeting in April via Zoom. We were on Zoom throughout the quarantine. This veteran group, I give them credit. We were getting 50 guys on Zoom calls.
"I am so proud of them," Dungee continued. "The last two weeks, they were practicing, not knowing if they were going to have a season now, in the spring, or a season at all. It all comes down to having a veteran group that's mature. We have great leadership from our core seniors."
Five seniors are part of the returning platoon of offensive starters, including quarterback Michael Henwood. A standout sprinter for the Hickory track and field team, Henwood has shown that his right arm is as productive as are his legs. In 2019, Henwood threw for 1,822 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also ran for a team-leading 622 yards and seven scores. His 31 combined touchdowns and 2,444 total offensive yards both ranked second in Mercer County.
"Offensively, it all starts with (Henwood)," Dungee said. "It's not only his athletic gifts, but he's tremendously smart and he's tough. He's a leader and one of the hardest workers. When you put all of that together, you couldn't ask for anything more."
Henwood's two top targets from 2019 also return, junior wide receiver Ramarion Whitehead and senior H-back Matthew Cannone. Whitehead led Mercer County by averaging 24.7 yards per reception last year. He hauled in 30 passes for 742 yards and eight touchdowns. Meanwhile, the versatile Cannone caught 29 passes for 334 yards. Cannone will again line up in the backfield, in the slot, and at wide receiver, according to Dungee.
Whitehead earned First Team All-Region and Cannone merited Second Team recognition.
Junior Jackson Pryts, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, will move to wide receiver on a full-time basis this year after splitting time between receiver and tight end last year. Junior Tai'Zhean Cameron will also challenge for time at wide receiver.
Senior Rocco Iacino returns at tight end. He missed the first half of 2019 due to injury but has been played regularly since his freshman season. The 225-pounder caught eight passes last year and earned Second Team All-Region.
Hickory's running back situation remains somewhat muddled, however. Junior Clay Wiesen missed the 2019 season due to injury, but will to push for the starting spot in the backfield. Freshman Sean Kennedy and Iacino are also expected to get carries.
"This year is really unknown right now," Dungee said of his running backs. "We'll figure it out. I think it will be rotational to being the season and we're looking for one guy to step up."
There are no such concerns on the offensive line, however, as Hickory returns four starters. First Team All-Region pick Michael Trinchese will anchor the line at center, while fellow senior left tackle Dalton Beatty -- an All-Region honoree -- and junior left guard Sammy Mancino also return as starters. Junior Joey Fazzone started at right tackle last season and returns at that spot. Dungee lists juniors Hunter Dunham and Collin Richards as the leading candidates for right guard.
Last season, Hickory used a 3-3-5 stack defense. That has been slightly modified to more of a 3-4 alignment this year. Beatty's move from defensive end to outside linebacker helped spur that adjustment. "It's a small adjustment," Dungee explained. "We're trying to use Dalton's athleticism. This frees him up to utilize his strengths as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker."
A First Team All-Region selection at end last year, Beatty joins a veteran linebacking corps that also returns All-Region pick Iacino and Pryts on the inside and Cameron at outside linebacker. "We're really excited about that linebacking group," Dungee said.
Mancino and Trinchese will likely start at defensive end. Dunham and Fazzone are battling for the nose tackle job.
Hickory also returns three starters in the secondary. Henwood will start at cornerback while Cannone and Whitehead are returning starters at safety. Sophomore Nash Porada and senior Donovan Crockett are battling for the other cornerback spot. Cannone and Henwood both earned First Team All-Region honors last season.
Sophomore Ty Holland will handle the punting duties after sharing those responsibilities last year. Freshman Lukas Jones is penciled in as the place-kicker.
Hickory will play Grove City, Sharon and Slippery Rock in region play this season. "It makes it tough because not only do you know those opponents, but you have to play them twice in a month," Dungee said. "That makes for some really tough battles. It will make for some great football games because of how well we know each other. You're really going to have to execute, because there aren't going to be any surprises."