RALEIGH — Cardinal Gibbons returns eight offensive starters from a club that consistently moved the ball in 2011.
Cary completely shut down the Crusaders in a 19-0 early-season win, and Wilson Hunt ended the Crusaders’ season with a 31-17 decision in the third round of the playoffs, but otherwise Gibbons scored at least three touchdowns in each game.
Leading rusher Ben Grazen (5-foot-10, 178 pounds) is one of the fastest players in the area (4.4 time in the 40), and he used that speed, and a strong blocking corps, to gain 1,608 yards and score 21 touchdowns.
“When he makes a cut, he is very decisive,” said Coach Steven Wright, who is in his second year as the Crusaders’ head coach. “He is very explosive.”
Grazen is expected to operate behind a veteran line led by Nick Carroll (6-5, 255), Thomas Bernhardt (6-4, 265) and Danny Schult (6-1, 215) and supplemented by tight end Nick Holloway (6-6, 230). Fullback Scott Washle (6-2, 220) is a noted blocker, too.
That offensive punch and big-play potential helped the Crusaders win their third-straight Carolina Six 3A Conference title last year. After Gibbons went 7-6 in 2008, a school best since returning to the N.C. High School Athletic Association in 2003, the Crusaders have reeled off 12-2, 11-3 and 11-2 records in the past three seasons.
To extend the streak of 11-plus wins to four seasons, Gibbons must establish a new quarterback. Junior Shawn Stankavage, the son of former North Carolina and NFL quarterback Scott Stankavage, and Dante DiMaggio are the top candidates.
“They are pushing each other,” Wright said. “They are both outstanding athletes, and we’re going to get both of them on the field somewhere.”
Wright is trying to instill a basketball point guard’s mentality into the quarterbacks.
“The big thing,” he said, “is to get the ball to our play makers.”
In addition to Grazen, the Crusaders have receivers Stephen Boyle and Danny Rosenblum on the outside and Holloway and Trevor Zaruba in the slots.
But opposite the offensive glitz of 2011 stood a stout defensive unit, which may be the key to success this season. The Gibbons defense was outstanding in 2011, holding nine of its last 11 opponents to two touchdowns or less.
Defense was the key to a 25-15 victory over Erwin Triton in the second round of the playoffs. Triton averaged 317 yards rushing and 36.2 points per game last season but was stymied by a Crusader defense that gave up 12.8 points per game.
“We’ve got more questions on defense than offense,” Wright said. “But we’ve got a good nucleus.”
Nick Carroll and Washle are back in the line and at linebacker, respectfully. Nick Haskin and Phillipe Toupin are veteran defensive backs.
The Crusaders have a veteran club with 38 seniors. The key, Wright said, is developing leaders.
“No. 1, we have to stay healthy. No. 2, we’ve got to have the kids to develop the leadership to pick up the mantle from the last three teams,” he said. “If we can do those two things, we should be competitive.”
Wright said Chapel Hill and Orange are the likely favorites in the league, but he likes his team.
“I think the league will be stronger overall,” said Wright, whose club averaged 37.8 points and had a 28.0 points per game winning margin in its five league games. “But I think we should be competitive.”