When conference football games begin in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference on Sept. 16 this season, one question looms over the eight teams in the league. Is 2012 merely another case of one game the Oct. 19 clash between Southeast Raleigh and Garner determining it all or will somebody join what has been a two-team show in recent years?"
The Trojans (15-1 in 2011) and Bulldogs (9-3) have shown few signs of weakness against league foes the past two seasons. Garners average margin of victory in GNRC games against the other six teams not named Southeast over the past two seasons is 42.9 points. Southeasts is 27.1.
But with Clayton, Knightdale and West Johnston all finishing the 2011 season on the upswing and improvement expected at Harnett Central, East Wake and Smithfield-Selma, maybe this year the last year for the conference as its currently constructed is the year.
The conference is still the best in the area, said West coach Randy Ragland. I think everybody thinks Knightdale is going to be greatly improved. And with Garner, Southeast and Clayton leading the way, you know what youre up against. But I still dont think the conference will be as top-heavy as its been at times.
Harnett Central you know will be better as well.
I think theyre all going to be better, said Garner coach Nelson Smith. It could be anybody in the top four or five this year. I expect a lot of close games.
The consensus sleeper is Knightdale, which returns much of its lineup from last season and has good overall speed. .
Theres part of you thats just kind of waiting for Knightdale to explode, Smith said.
Clayton coach Gary Fowler thinks continuity in coaching will help the league as well with veteran coaches now in place at six schools.
The big thing thats happened in the Greater Neuse is theres more stability here now with the coaching, Fowler said. It makes it easier for teams to build programs and develop players when youre not changing schemes.
The Comets are more athletic and quicker than they were a season ago and theyre up first to challenge Garner this season. Harnett Central gets the other league juggernaut in Week 1 of conference play when it visits Southeast.
Central returns seven defensive starters and a deep group of linebackers, including Pat Speight, Michael Vahue, Tyvon Prince, Josh Williams and Rasheed Christmas. Central coach Patrick Turner expects the defense to be the strength of his team with eight seniors as projected starters.
I dont think there is a No. 1 or a No. 2 team this year, Turner said. You take two kids off of those teams last year and its a much tighter race. Part of you feels like you lost to (Southeast Raleigh quarterback) David Washington and (Garner running back) Juwan Moye. They were that talented of players.
Fellow coaches dont rule out West Johnston with quarterback Justin Carroll.
East Wake returns seven starters from last years team, but has 20 returning lettermen. The off-season work coach John Poulnotts squad has put in has the Warriors excited about their potential for improvement.
Smithfield-Selma, which has lost enrollment with the opening of Corinth Holders and Cleveland and will shift to the 3A ranks next season, is coming off a winless season and adjusting to a new coaching staff led by David Lawhon.
Weve just got to compete for 48 minutes, from the opening kick off until the horn blows, Lawhon said. If we can do that and improve week to week, Ill be happy and very proud of them.
Even with the projected improvement across the conference, the Oct. 19 date between Southeast and Garner may decide the leagues title.
I dont know if its there yet, but were (the other conference teams) getting closer, Fowler said. If you want to win the championship, youve still got to go down on Highway 70 (near Garner High) and on Rock Quarry Road (near Southeast) and somehow win.
Games to Watch
Knightdale at Southeast Raleigh
The Knights begin a two-game road stretch against the GNRCs traditional powerhouses with a visit to Raleigh. Knightdale heads to Garner seven days later.
Southeast Raleigh at Garner
By this time, well likely know if this is yet another outright battle for the conference championship or just one piece of it.
Clayton at West Johnston
The Wildcats played their way into the playoffs with a 35-30 victory in this game last year, forcing Clayton to win in its regular-season finale against Knightdale to make the postseason.