Editor’s note: this is the 8th edition of the southwestern Wake end-of-year awards for area high school sports. Eligible schools include any of the nine SWAC schools, Cardinal Gibbons, Cary Academy, Cary Christian, Wake Christian and Grace Christian Raleigh.
The awards are selected by J. Mike Blake, the sports editor of The Cary News and Southwest Wake News, with input from the papers’ many freelance writers and photographers.
MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Nick Stachowiak, Middle Creek: Four years, three titles, no losses. That’s the easy way to sum up how dominating senior boys tennis player Nick Stachowiak was for the Mustangs this season and every other as well. The only thing that kept the Middle Creek star from winning four state 4A singles titles was a back injury as a junior. Not only did Stachowiak never lose a singles match, he was also never beat in doubles, no matter who was his teammate. He will play for Duke next season.
FEMALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Sammi Smith & Jordan Strickland, Panther Creek: There are no rules against co-winners, and we had to go with both Jordan Strickland and Sammi Smith after the incredible season both players had. The Catamounts not only won their third straight 4A dual-team title, Smith and Strickland closed their careers with a fourth straight 4A doubles title. Only one other pair had ever done that in NCHSAA history.
MALE TEAM OF THE YEAR
Cary boys basketball: What an incredible year it was. There was an unbeaten regular season, packed gyms, a 24-0 regular season, “Fire and Ice,” last-second heroics and a state championship runner-up finish.
But the Cary boys basketball team transcended the sport and inspired a community. The success from this year’s 31-2 team united a school that had run upon hard times in athletics as district lines shifted often. The way they played – with humility and togetherness – made fans of many. Down 19 in the third quarter of the fourth round, no one left their seats. They were rewarded with an overtime win. In the season’s final 16 games, Cary won in OT four times.
“They made us proud to be Imps again,” coach Allan Gustafson Jr. said after the state championship. “They rallied a community. They won the hearts and minds of everyone who came out and watched them.”
FEMALE TEAM OF THE YEAR
Cardinal Gibbons volleyball: The first year of 4A play was no sweat for Cardinal Gibbons’ heralded volleyball program. Facing its toughest competition since re-joining the NCHSAA in 2005, the Crusaders rolled to their seventh straight championship, making it 10 of the last 11. Cardinal Gibbons rotated 11 players in the state title match 3-0 victory over Northwest Guilford, so there’s no reason to think the streak stops next year.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Allan Gustafson Jr., Cary boys basketball: The man they call “Coach Gus” saw all those countless hours of helping his players on his own dime start to pay him back. In Cary’s magical run to the state title game, former players came back in droves to support the 18-year head coach.
And they came back because of what he meant to them off the court.
Gustafson stresses winning and losing with class.
He speaks often about how wins and losses are emphasized too much by society; that the process and journey should matter more.
And, as a history teacher, he can’t help but work in some subject matter into his talks.
Even after a heart-breaking loss in the 4A title game, he was able to once again keep basketball in perspective with life lessons.
“We may not have the trophy that says state champions, but where it counts the most – when you impact people, when you affect people and when you matter to people – they’re state champions,” he said.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Middle Creek edges Fuquay-Varina on a FG: On Oct. 23, the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference football title was decided by a field goal in overtime. But the dramatics can’t be summed up in that or the 17-14 scoreline that saw Middle Creek winning at Fuquay-Varina.
It was one of the biggest regular-season high school football games the Triangle had seen in a decade. Both teams – heated rivals, no less – entered the game each 8-0 and each coming off a bye week. The extra seven days of hype led to a high number of pre-sale tickets and more than 4,000 fans took up every seat at Bengals Stadium and lined the fence to get a view.
It ended up being the catapult Middle Creek needed for an undefeated regular season, its first, and another conference title.
STORY OF THE YEAR
SWAC soccer dominance and upsets: The Southwest Wake Athletic Conference has long been one of the best leagues, if not the best, in the state. But this year was a different twist.
Seven teams got into the postseason, four made it to the third round (and perhaps that was only because SWAC team Fuquay-Varina faced SWAC rival Holly Springs in the second round) and three made it to the fourth round. The league knocked out three conference champs in the first round, then took out three more before the playoffs were done.
The 4A East final came down to 24-seed Athens Drive, the sixth-place team in the SWAC, hosting 26-seed Middle Creek, the fifth-place team. Middle Creek nearly pulled off a stunner in the 4A title game, falling 2-1 to nationally-ranked Providence as a last-second goal was waved off on an offside call that no one in red-and-black will ever agree with.
Maybe we should have seen this all coming: neither of those teams lost a nonconference match in the regular season.
MILESTONE OF THE YEAR
Strickland and Smith make history: Four years, four titles. Panther Creek’s Jordan Stickland and Sammi Smith went out as only the second four-time doubles championship pair in NCHSAA history.
MOMENT OF THE YEAR
Boyd reaches the 2,000-point mark: Four-year football and basketball standout Ian Boyd became one of about 50 players in state history to hit the 2,000 point mark in his hoops career. Boyd, the SWAC player of the year in basketball and a first-team selection in football, ended his career with 2,128 points. The 2014 title game MVP will play at George Mason next year.
PHOTO OF THE YEAR
Cary stuns Garner: This one photo says it all, doesn’t it? It was taken just seconds after Cory Gensler’s buzzer-beating 3 to lift the Imps past Garner 71-69 in overtime of the 4A East regional title game.
In the background, the Cary bench mobs Cory Gensler in the background while coach Allan Gustafson Jr. turns to face the crowd and soak in the surreal moment. In the foreground, we get the other side of sports – a dream of making back-to-back titles dashed at the last second.