Cardinal Gibbons has been running with the area’s high school football elite in recent years.
Garner, which reached the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A finals in 2011 and the semifinals in 2012, has 47 wins in the last four years. Wake Forest, a semifinalist in 2009 and a finalist in 2010, earned the same total.
Gibbons has 45.
The Crusaders have posted consecutive 11-1, 11-2, 11-3 and 12-2 records after going 15-30 in their first four years in the NCHSAA.
“Our program has caught up with the school,” Gibbons coach Steven Wright said. “The football program struggled some when the school started playing, but the last few years we have come on.”
Gibbons has 145 boys participating and it will field ninth grade, junior varsity and varsity squads this season.
The new Big Eight 3A looks much stronger than the conferences Gibbons has been a part of previously, but the Crusaders still rate as one of the league favorites.
Senior quarterback Shawn Stankavage is back at full strength following an ACL injury and surgery last fall. Gibbons was undefeated with Stankavage at the helm. The son of former NFL quarterback Scott Stankavage passed for 1,905 yards and 29 touchdowns, completing almost 70 percent of his passing attempts. He had only seven passes intercepted.
“He does a tremendous job throwing the ball to the right person at the right time and the right way,” Wright said. “He has the ‘it’ factor. He leads and he knows how to play the game.”
In his last game in 2012, Stankavage led Gibbons to 50 points in the first half. After he left the game with his knee injury, the Crusaders held on for a 57-52 win against Grays Creek.
Gibbons had made only 12 turnovers in its first 11 games, but had six in a season-ending 25-20 loss to Wilson Hunt.
Among the veterans are linemen Mac Donahue and John Mullen and versatile Dante DiMaggio, who passed for 513 yards and posted 306 yards in receptions. He also is a good runner.
Gibbons’ last two tailbacks – Ben Grazen and Tim Buckley – play at N.C. State now and there is no proven successor. Junior D.J. Smith and senior Peyton Offnick are the top candidates.
The Crusaders put up 36 points per game and allowed just 17 per game in 2012 and Wright expects the defensive front seven will be a strength. Gibbons held eight regular-season opponents to two touchdowns or less and no one scored more than 21 points before the shootout with Gray’s Creek.
Linemen Michael Benvenuto (6-2, 240) and Demetrios Meliones (5-10, 275) return along with linebacker Stephen Scott. Lukas Bowler (6-3, 240) and Rich Skowron (6-1, 215) could play up front with Scott Henion, Jack Prevost and Chris Karazin working at linebacker.
Stephen Albright and Jack O’Korn are in the secondary.
“The keys to the season are staying healthy and avoiding turnovers,” Wright said.