Considering that Cardinal Gibbons never – not even once – lost a game to a Carolina-6 Conference opponent, it’d be easy to think of the Crusaders as the clear favorites for another league championship.
But the Carolina-6 has gone the way of bag phones, and Cardinal Gibbons is entering this season as a member of the new Big Eight Conference. With the addition of past perennial 4A playoff team Southern Durham and former 2A power Northwood in the 3A conference, it’s anyone’s guess who will claim the title.
“Week in, week out, it’s very likely the most competitive conference in the state,” Cardinal Gibbons head coach Steven Wright said.
Every coach in the Big Eight agrees with him, and it’s hard to dispute the claim.
Five of the Big Eight’s teams qualified for the state playoffs last year, three of them winning at least one playoff game: Chapel Hill, Orange and Gibbons.
The Southern Durham Spartans lost in the 4A playoffs’ first round last year. The Spartans help give the Big Eight the semblance of the Triangle’s old “Black and Blue Division,” which included Southern, Chapel Hill, Orange, Northern Vance and Oxford Webb, among others.
Northwood, which lost in the 2A’s first round last year, had reached the third round in four of six previous playoffs. This year’s team, with former East Chapel Hill coach Bill Renner as the new offensive coordinator, could be the joker in the Big Eight’s deck.
Cedar Ridge, which didn’t make a tournament appearance last year, still has players on its roster who remember playing in the state semifinals.
“One thing about this conference – every team knows it has to bring its best game every week,” Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh said. “There will be no ‘off’ weeks against any conference opponent.”
Chapel Hill is one of the chief contenders for the initial Big Eight title. The Tigers lost a lot of talent off last year’s 9-4 team, which won a playoff game on the road for the first time in more than 20 years. But they return three all-conference players: running back Darius Allen, punter Grant Deselm and 6-foot-1, 300-pound lineman Logan Tisch.
Deselm beat out two other Tigers for the starting quarterback role at Chapel Hill, replacing three-year starter T.J. Johnson, who’s now at St. Augustine’s.
Luke Christy played himself out of the competition for the starting quarterback spot by simply being too good at cornerback on defense, Marsh said. He envisions Christy as a strong contender for postseason honors.
“Luke will give us a great opportunity to win some games on defense,” Marsh said.
Orange is a team that many observers believe has the best chance to take the Big Eight championship. The Panthers got closer to beating Gibbons last year than any other 3A team, falling 28-21 in Raleigh in the game that decided the Carolina-6 title.
Orange went farther in the 2012 playoffs than any other Carolina-6 member and farther than any previous Panthers football team, reaching the state’s fourth round before losing at undefeated Havelock, the eventual state champion.
Even with the return of Patrick Pettiford, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards last year, Orange still has an uphill fight to win its a conference crown.
Gibbons has gone 45-8 over the past four years and 5-0 in conference games each of those years. The result has been a tidal wave of interest from Cardinal Gibbons students. 145 would-be players showed up for the first day of tryouts, which is one-quarter of the school’s population.
No. 1 among the Crusaders is quarterback Shawn Stankavage, the Carolina-6 offensive player of the year in 2012.
If anyone is to beat out Stankavage for postseason honors this year, it could be junior quarterback Kendall Hinton of Southern Durham.
Hinton is one of seven all-conference performers for Southern who are back for 2013, including wide receiver Maurice Trowell; defensive end Tahj Spivey; defensive back Marvin Tillman; down lineman Noah Chase, strong safety Kameron Johnson; and running back William Cameron.
Hinton was one of the Triangle’s top passers last year, completing 148 of 258 throws (57.4 percent) for 2,481 yards and 27 touchdowns. His primary target was Trowell, who had 941 receiving yards with seven touchdowns. Trowell already has committed to N.C. State.
Despite the talent of Hinton, Trowell and Cameron, defense could be the Spartans’ strong point. At an eight-team jamboree at Southern Vance, where the heat index topped 100 degrees, Southern Durham shut out all five teams it faced.
“I was very, very impressed,” Southern head coach Adrian Jones said.