Considering Cardinal Gibbons never lost a game to a Carolina-Six opponent, it’d be easy to think of the Crusaders as the clear favorites for another league championship.
But the Carolina-Six has gone the way of bag phones, and Cardinal Gibbons is entering play this week as a member of the new Big Eight 3A. With the addition of perennial 4A playoff team Southern Durham in the conference, no one has a claim on the title.
“Week in, week out, it’s very likely the most competitive conference in the state,” Cardinal Gibbons 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.
Southern Durham lost in the 4A playoffs’ first round.
Northwood, which lost in the 2A’s first round, had been as far as the fourth round in four of five previous playoffs. This year’s team, with former East Chapel Hill coach Bill Renner as the offensive coordinator, could be a surprise in the Big Eight.
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 coach Issac Marsh said. “There will be no ‘off’ weeks against any conference opponent.”
Chapel Hill is one of the chief contenders to beat out Cardinal Gibbons for the initial Big Eight title. The Tigers lost a lot of talent from 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 now is at Saint Augustine’s.
Luke Christy played himself out of the competition for the starting quarterback spot by simply being too good at cornerback, Marsh said. He envisions Christy as a strong contender for postseason honors.
Orange got closer to beating Cardinal Gibbons last year than any other 3A team, falling 28-21 in Raleigh in the game that decided the Carolina-Six championship.
Orange went farther in the 2012 playoffs than any other Carolina-Six team and farther than any previous Panthers 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 a conference crown.
Cardinal Gibbons has gone 45-8 over the past four years, going 5-0 in conference games each season. 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.
No. 1 among the Crusaders is quarterback Shawn Stankavage, the 2012 Carolina-Six Offensive Player of the Year.
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 Durham who are back – including wide receiver Maurice Trowell; defensive end Tahj Spivey; defensive back Marvin Tillman; 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 been named to at least one preseason all-state team.
Despite the talent of Hinton, Trowell and Cameron, defense could be the Spartans’ strong point. At an eight-team jamboree last weekend at Southern Vance, where the heat index topped 100, Southern Durham shut out all five teams it faced.
“I was very, very impressed,” Southern Durham coach Adrian Jones said. “That was something any coach would like to see.”