The notion of Cardinal Gibbons and Orange playing for a conference football championship would have been unlikely five years ago.
Orange was coming off a 4-8 season as preseason practice began in the fall of 2008 and the Panthers had averaged eight losses a year during the previous nine years.
Gibbons had averaged more than six losses since joining the N.C. High School Athletic Association in 2003. The Crusaders’ best season was a 6-5 mark in 2004, the two teams’ only winning record against N.C. High School Athletic Association competition from 1999 though 2007.
But Gibbons and Orange are legitimate Carolina 3A powers this season.
Gibbons is 8-0 and has posted 11-2, 11-3 and 12-2 records during the past three seasons. If the Crusaders can defeat Orange (7-1) on Friday and Chapel Hill (7-2) next week, its seniors will graduate having never lost a conference football game.
Gibbons’ closest win since season-opening victories over Clayton, 20-15, and Cary, 15-12, is last week’s 37-18 win over Northern Vance.
“But this week won’t be a lopsided game,” said Gibbons coach Steven Wright. “These last games are going to be like playoff games.”
Orange won its only league championship in the last 13 years in 2008 when the club finished 8-5 under former coach Dickie Schock.
The Panthers moved from 2A to 3A in 2009 as Pat Moser came out of a four-year retirement to assume the head coaching job. Moser had coached Graham to the state 1A finals in 1999 and 2000.
Wright, who is in his second season at Gibbons, said former Crusader coach Mike Sheehan built a foundation.
“He had put some things in place that we’re reaping the benefit from,” Wright said. “There was zero football tradition here and we didn’t have a winning attitude here in the past. That has changed.”
Wright is glad the Crusaders’ toughest conference games are at the end of the season..
“It is good to be playing playoff caliber teams right before the playoffs,” Wright said. “I suspect the team that wins will have taken care of the ball and executed better.”
Orange’s only loss was 27-19 at undefeated Carrboro.