As sure as there will be N.C. High School Athletic Association football playoff brackets, there will also be criticism. The two go hand-in-hand, and social media makes it easier than ever to share discontent with the world.
There are some good points to be made – do we need 64 playoff teams in 1A when only 77 field teams? – but there are more positives than negatives with this year’s brackets.
In the eastern halves of the bracket, there are seven first-round conference rematches, down from 14 last season and five of them are in the 1A or 1AA division. The way the teams are paired, with an East regional team playing one from the Mideast, means that we may not have many of them in the second round either, even though it’s perfectly understandable if there are.
The most unfortunate of these in our area is Southern Nash hosting Northern Nash after visiting the Knights just last week. But the 3A bracket was skewed after three would-be playoff teams were eliminated for either too many fighting ejections (Cedar Ridge, Northern Vance) or forfeiting four wins (C.B. Aycock). In a normal year, there’s no way Southern Nash is a Mideast team or 4-6 Eastern Wayne (the benefactor of Aycock’s forfeits) gets a home game.
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The system can’t plan for everything, but it has given us really intriguing brackets.
Best first-round game: Both D.H. Conley and Cardinal Gibbons narrowly missed out on top seeds in the 4A bracket and both know how to put up points. Gibbons is 10-1 and has only lost on a kickoff return in the final seconds. The Crusaders are averaging 42.2 points per game. Conley (9-2 before a forfeit to Southeast Raleigh) lost a coin flip for the 1-seed out of the Eastern Carolina 4A/3A and is averaging 50.9 points per game.
Best chance at an upset: Leesville Road (6-5) has won three of its last four and nearly upset Wake Forest. Pinecrest (9-2) struggled with 2-9 Hoke County in its season finale, winning 21-12.
Hardest bracket: The 4A East is sometimes an afterthought to the 4AA East because usually the 4AA has more conference champions and 1-loss teams, but not this year. New Hanover, Scotland County, Cape Fear and J.H. Rose all won conference titles over bigger schools and are tossed into a bracket with 10-1 Cardinal Gibbons, 10-1 West Johnston, 9-1 Hillside, 9-2 Seventy-First and 8-3 D.H. Conley.
Biggest break: The 2A East can breathe a sigh of relief as Reidsville was split into the West bracket. That opens the door for an N&O area team like Ayden-Grifton, North Johnston or Beddingfield.
Toughest break: When Orange found itself on the small side of the 3AA/3A split, it made the 3A East bracket one of the toughest in the state. Orange is one of three undefeated teams in the bracket and then there’s also 10-1 Havelock and three 9-2 teams (Rocky Mount, Southern Guilford, Eastern Alamance).
Best story: Sanderson, which opened in 1968, is hosting a playoff football game for the first time. Gregson Stadium has seen a ton of playoff wins in soccer, but not one snap of playoff football until this Friday. The Spartans (8-3) can reach nine wins for the second time in school history with a win.
Biggest anomaly: Until the 1A athletic directors band together and ask that their bracket’s definitions of East/West be set in stone, you’re going to get six-hour trips like South Robeson to Murphy or Rosman to North Duplin. It’s understandable in all brackets that a team from the Triangle or Triad may travel to the coast, but connecting the mountains to the eastern farmlands needs to be avoided. It’s a football-only problem. in most other sports, the East/West line splits Durham and Chatham counties.
The Starting 11: players of the week
(Times named to The Starting 11 this season in parentheses.)
Holton Ahlers, D.H. Conley (4): Completed 20 of 29 passes for 400 yards and seven touchdowns.
Quentin Carlton, Southern Wayne (1): Completed 7 of 12 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns; ran 14 times for 65 yards.
Connor Collins, Wake Christian (2): Caught eight passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns, also ran twice for 22 yards and a touchdown.
Earl Gibson Jr., Princeton (20: Ran nine times for 135 yards and two touchdowns; had a 47-yard touchdown catch.
Travis Griffin, Nash Central (2): Completed 9 of 13 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
Brandon Hardy, Ayden-Grifton (2): Ran 12 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns.
C.J. Pearce, Nash Central (1): Caught seven passes for 183 yards one touchdown.
Kenneth Sims, Beddingfield (1): Scored on a 65-yard punt return, an 85-yard kickoff return and a 20-yard catch (two catches, 58 yards).
Matt Stallworth, Princeton (1): Ran 11 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
Manny Walker, Southern Wayne (1): Ran 20 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns; caught two passes for 50 yards and another touchdown.
T.J. Willoughby, Farmville Central (1): Ran 38 times for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
4-point stance: top defenses
Ayden-Grifton: Held North Lenoir scoreless for the first three quarters and to 39 yards passing, 163 rushing, in a 34-7 win.
Farmville Central: Defeated North Johnston 45-14 and held the Panthers to 68 yards rushing, 122 passing.
Princeton: Held Spring Creek to minus-6 yards rushing and 112 passing in a 54-7 win.
Southern Nash: Demetris Perry scored on a fumble return and Alex Puente on an inception as the and the Firebirds defeated the Knights (57 yards rushing and 112 passing) 28-11.
▪ If the games go in favor of those ranked higher in the AP poll, you’d have East finals of Middle Creek vs Wake Forest (4AA); Lee County vs Eastern Guilford (3AA); Southern Nash vs Orange (3A); Clinton vs East Duplin (2AA); Wallace-Rose Hill vs Tarboro (1AA). North Edgecombe is the only 1A East team in the AP poll and Northeastern is the only team from the 2A East. There are no teams in the 4A East receiving votes from AP voters.
▪ If the seeds hold, you’d have East finals of: Middle Creek vs Wake Forest (4AA); New Hanover vs. Scotland County (4A); West Brunswick vs. Eastern Guilford (3AA); Southern Nash vs. West Craven (3A); Clinton vs. East Duplin (2AA); South Columbus vs. Northeastern (2A); East Carteret vs. Lakewood (1AA); Plymouth vs. Southeast Halifax (1A).