Last season’s Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, then known as the Tri-9, was filled with enough close games to leave almost every coach in the league feeling that a few bounces here or there could have helped them pull off a great season.
Athens Drive, Cary and Green Hope lost a combined eight conference games by six points or less and all finished tied for third in the league.
Holly Springs finished seventh and missed the playoffs, but only two games separated it from third-place Fuquay-Varina. Holly Springs lost two games by seven points.
There was even a glimmer of hope for eighth-place Panther Creek, whose seven conference losses were never decided by more than eight points.
“Every game we went into, we felt like we had a chance at it,” said Panther Creek coach Sean Crocker. “I think everyone in the conference feels like that.”
Crocker said one of the reasons the league has been so close is the different offenses; last year’s conference had the wing-T, the veer, a pro-style offense and variations of the spread.
The separation may have gotten even closer with runner-up Lee County’s (9-4) realignment assignment to the Cape Fear Valley 3A and conference champ Middle Creek’s (11-2) massive graduation losses on offense.
The top six from last year’s conference made the postseason (though none made it past the second round), and five of those are ranked in the top 18 of The News & Observer’s preseason top 25 rankings. Holly Springs is the only team in The N&O rankings that didn’t make the playoffs last year, and is ranked No. 15.
Coaching turnover at new high
Green Hope’s Kwame Dixon enters his third year as coach, which makes him the longest-tenured SWAC head coach at his current school (Crocker spent five years at Middle Creek before leaving for Panther Creek).
Two of the league’s most established programs changed coaches this summer. Cary, which has gone to 11 straight playoffs, hired former assistant coach – and athletics director before that – Kurt Glendenning.
Fuquay-Varina promoted defensive coordinator Jeb Hall. The Bengals are 72-19 over the past seven years.
Injuries to top players
The SWAC was slated to bring back several of its most explosive players from 2012, but injuries have hurt that projection.
Holly Springs junior running back Nehemiah Harris tore his ACL in a scrimmage Friday, a day before Green Hope senior quarterback Chris Tutwiler broke his leg in a scrimmage.
Apex sophomore quarterback Ian Boyd will miss at least the season opener after breaking his hand during the offseason.
Middle Creek brings back East Carolina wide receiver recruit Curtis Burston (813 yards, 10 touchdowns) and has an all-conference linebacker, Warren Messer, a transfer from Cary.
Fuquay-Varina (7-5, 5-3) quarterback Tyler Williams ran for 1,240 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and fullback Damarus Williams rushed for 1,034 and 17 scores.
After Tutwiler’s injury, Green Hope (6-6, 4-4) will turn to Luke Massei at quarterback. John Nassif (443 yards) will return at receiver.
Cary (5-6, 4-4) returns Trevion Hackney (three receiving touchdowns, one kick return for touchdown) and junior defensive lineman Anthony Rush.
Athens Drive (5-7, 4-4) has a big-time threat at running back in senior Dominique Lynch (1,537 yards, 17 touchdowns in 11 games).
Holly Springs (4-6, 3-5) senior running back Kevin Wilson (715 yards, six touchdowns) ended the year hot, as did wide receiver Jordon Kornegay (368 yards, five touchdowns).
Panther Creek (1-10, 1-7) returns all-purpose back Dorrel McClain, a senior who split time last year as a receiver (199 yards) and runner (543 yards), and even spent time at quarterback and cornerback. He will be primarily a ball carrier this year. The Catamounts also return all-conference linebacker Matt Powell.
Apex (2-8, 1-7) expects to get sophomore Ian Boyd (660 yards rushing, 567 passing in nine games) back at some point. Classmate Grayson Boyd, no relation to Ian, will start the opener.
Navigating the nonconference
Reigning conference champion Middle Creek plays four nonconference teams, and the top three went a combined 36-5 last year. Middle Creek will play rival Garner on the road to start the year, then host Fayetteville E.E. Smith.
The Mustangs also host Wakefield, a program that – like Middle Creek – has never missed the playoffs.
Panther Creek also has a tough nonconference schedule: the Catamounts play three teams in the top six of The News & Observer preseason rankings – No. 6 Heritage, No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 2 Leesville Road.
After its traditional opener with Broughton, Cary plays host to No.9 Cardinal Gibbons then travels to No. 4 Wake Forest and No. 1 Garner.
Ending with rivals
The SWAC athletics directors say this was luck of the draw – the season finales for this year feature some of the league’s fiercest rivalries: Fuquay-Varina at Middle Creek, Green Hope at Panther Creek, Cary at Athens Drive and the not-quite-as-fierce Holly Springs at Apex game.
The way things have gone over the past nine years, the Middle Creek and Fuquay showdown will be pivotal. Not since 2004 have both rivals been shut out of at least a share of the conference title.
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