Cardinal Gibbons athletics found a home when the PAC-6 Conference welcomed the Crusaders with open arms after they sought realigning into a 4A league.
Football coach Steve Wright is thankful for a smooth transition. Now, he wants to move forward. Overall, Cardinal Gibbons has won more N.C. High School Athletic Association state championships than any other member school in the 2A and 3A ranks since joining the association in 2005.
The football team has defeated a 4A squad every year since 2009.
As Cardinal Gibbons prepares to enter its first football season in a higher division, Wright hopes his Crusaders can establish themselves quickly and early.
“It’s an extremely competitive conference overall,” said Wright, who noted Durham Hillside as a dominate team.
Cardinal Gibbons finished 6-6 last season and is expected to have a strong core returning on the offense.
I think we’re excited about the new competition. It’s a new opportunity to play some new faces and kind of establish ourselves deep as a program in the 4A
Cardinal Gibbons TE Thomas Ruocchio
The program finished with its eighth consecutive NCHSAA playoff appearance last year. Starting in 2009, the Crusaders were Carolina 6 Conference champions for four straight years with a 20-0 league record during that time.
Wright had one word to if the Crusaders would like to return to that status.
“Absolutely,” he said sternly. “We had a nice run there. We’d like to get back in that same position again. We finished second the year (before last), we struggled last year with injuries; we were in the middle of the pack there. We anticipate being in the midst of the fight for a conference title for sure.”
Cardinal Gibbons is a newcomer in a conference that finished 22-50 overall last season, with one team (East Chapel Hill) posting a winless record.
Hillside swept the conference for the crown, but started 2-4 in non-conference.
“They’ve been a dominate team in the area for years,” Wright said. “I think it’ll be extremely competitive and something we’re looking forward to getting involved in.”
Quarterbacks Anton Stoneking and Wesley Wagner are still competing for the starting job, while running back Dalen Spruill will make his sophomore debut. He led the Crusaders with 596 rushing yards last season.
Wright added the Crusaders will be deep at wide receiver. Last season, the receivers amassed 2,331 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of leadership coming back with our returning quarterbacks,” said James Russo, a rising senior receiver. “I think we’ll have a lot of leadership and maturity.”
Cardinal Gibbons will count on that group of experienced returners this season.
Last season, the Crusaders fell in the first round of playoffs.
For some of them, competing in the new classification doesn’t come without its challenges.
“We didn’t have as much success last year as we wanted,” rising senior safety Stephen Shank said. “We know we have to turn it up a notch, especially going into a 4A conference. We know it’s going to be a lot tougher and that we really have to step it up.”
Contributors: DE Steven Fedorovich, DE Will Graham, TE Thomas Ruocchio, WR James Russo, S Stephen Shank, RB Dalen Spurriell, QB Anton Stoneking, QB Wes Wagner.
Expected strength: Depth
Question mark: Competing through entire 4A schedule
Player they’ll miss: MLB Steven Scott. He capped last year’s defense well and was a big piece.
The number: 2009 - Cardinal Gibbons began a four-year conference winning streak in 2009; it has also beaten a 4A team every year since then.
The quote: DE Will Graham on team’s transition: “I really like our intensity and I think we’re very prepared for the season right now. Our 3A schedule was one of the toughest, so I think that definitely prepared us for 4A.”
Game to watch: Oct. 9 vs. Hillside. The Crusaders acknowledged the defending PAC-6 champ as a dominant conference opponent, so this will be their chance to prove themselves in the new league.
Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
Last five years
2014: 6-6 (3-4)
2013: 9-5 (5-2)
2012: 11-1 (5-0)
2011: 11-2 (5-0)
2010: 11-3 (5-0)