The Greater Neuse River 4A Conference continued its trend of new faces this off-season with four programs taking on new head coaches: Clayton, Knightdale, Rolesville and Southeast Raleigh. The changes add a little more intrigue to what is likely to be a very competitive race.
Expected to lead that chase again is perennial champ Garner, which returns its top runner and one of the area’s most-recruited players.
Last year, five teams finished within two games of second place in the conference.
Favorite: Garner. The Trojans are expected to return 15 starters from a 9-win club that got upset in the first round of the playoffs.
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Underdog: Harnett Central. The Trojans have double-digit returning starters but will need to rebuild both lines.
Dark horse: Southeast Raleigh. The Bulldogs were the only league team to beat Garner last year.
Players to Watch
Matthew Butler, Garner: Should be even more of a factor on both sides of the ball at tight end and on the defensive line. Massive size/speed (6-foot-4, 265, 4.8 40) is an imposing/dangerous red zone target.
Devin Carter, Clayton: The 6-foot-4 receiver could be ready to explode statistically this season.
Collin Eaddy, Garner: He ran for more than 1,800 yards while missing some time. Has several D-I offers.
Mikekale Engles, East Wake: Physical runner will be more of a factor on offense and lines up at middle linebacker as well.
Mitch Hall, Clayton: The long snapper, you ask? Yes, the long snapper. He’s one of the best in the nation with a rare full scholarship offer for a snapper (Memphis) and an invitation to the Army All-American Bowl already.
Tony Mack, West Johnston: If this was a GNRC fantasy draft, this do everything talent would be in everybody’s top 3-4 players.
Andre Wilson, West Johnston: Quarterback is effective running or throwing, key leader for a veteran West squad.
Most important games
Sept. 1, South Johnston at Clayton: On the surface, it’s a matchup of former mentor and his former players — Clayton head coach Hunter Jenks against the team he coached last year. A little deeper, it’s a chance for the Comets to get an early gauge on their future prospects against the kind of speedy, experienced and dangerous team they’ll see a lot of in conference play.
Sept. 2, Wake Forest at Southeast Raleigh: The Bulldogs have a senior-heavy class expecting a big season. What better way to find out where they’re at early in the season than challenging the Triangle’s most successful program this decade?
Sept. 16, Garner at Southeast Raleigh: Garner’s two biggest games in conference play are on the road this year. The first one is against the only team to beat the Trojans in league play last season.
Sept. 23, Rolesville at Knightdale: Early meeting between two of the teams with new head coaches this season. Who gets the win and early conference-season momentum?
Sept. 30, West Johnston at East Wake: Teams tied for second in the league last season. Is East Wake able to challenge a more veteran squad?
Oct. 28, Garner at West Johnston: The Wildcats are the most likely challengers to Garner’s throne this season. West gets the Trojans at home on Senior Night.