The Southwest Wake Athletic Conference opens up league play in football this Friday after struggling in its collective nonconference schedule. This was somewhat expected from the nine-team league, which adds Apex Friendship this season.
Four coaches are entering their second season at the schools (three of those were rebuilding jobs), Athens Drive has a new head coach and this is Friendship’s first year of varsity play.
Middle Creek has gone 34-3 in league play over the last four years, including three undefeated SWAC seasons, and has won the conference title in four of the last five.
Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs were voted by coaches in a preseason poll as the league’s No. 2 and 3 teams and figure to pose the biggest challenge.
This Friday’s games are: Athens Drive at Apex, Apex Friendship at Fuquay-Varina, Cary at Panther Creek and Holly Springs at Green Hope. Middle Creek has a bye week.
SORTING OUT THE FIELD
Favorite: Middle Creek. The Mustangs were the only SWAC team to start the season 3-0.
Dark horse: Take your pick. Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina were expected to finish in the top three and look headed that way. This early in the year, it’s impossible to sort out who among Athens Drive-Panther Creek-Green Hope can rise up and challenge the other three.
Underdog: Apex Friendship. The Patriots already have a win, but not having a senior class will hurt some.
7 PLAYERS TO KNOW
Dominique Shoffner, QB, Middle Creek: Needs to cut down on his 19 interceptions from last year, but it’s hard to complain about 38 touchdowns (27 passing, 11 rushing).
Broderick Taylor, RB, Holly Springs: Opening up the year with 375 yards rushing in a single game will turn some heads.
Justin Smalls, WR, Panther Creek: The reigning co-special teams player of the year (two kickoff returns for touchdown) also had 11 touchdowns and 841 yards receiving.
Bobby Marshewski, OL, Middle Creek: Injured to start the season but has been one of the league’s top offensive linemen for the last two years.
Jonathan Cole, OL/DL, Fuquay-Varina: An N&O All-Metro selection for his dominating play on both sides of the ball.
Alijah O’Neal, OL/DL, Holly Springs: Like Cole, makes an impact on both sides of the ball.
Daniel Jackson, S, Middle Creek: The Army recruit had a whopping 11 interceptions.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Most important game (or games) for each team
Apex: Can’t go wrong with the Apex-Cary game, which falls on Sept. 16 this year. Both teams are in their second season with new head coaches and will need a win.
Apex Friendship: Friendship’s best chance at a conference win might be against crosstown foe Apex High on Sept. 30.
Athens Drive: The Jaguars want to halt a losing streak to SWAC teams. It could be snapped Sept. 9 against Apex, Oct. 14 against Cary or Oct. 28 against Friendship.
Cary: The Imps could use a pick-me-up this Friday at Panther Creek to help get the season back on the right track.
Fuquay-Varina: The Holly Springs game on Sept. 30 and the Middle Creek game on Oct. 13, a Thursday. So far, these are the only other two SWAC teams in the N&O area top 25.
Green Hope: A win against Panther Creek on Oct. 7 could send the Falcons on a late-season push for the playoffs.
Holly Springs: First things first. Before the Hawks can make that jump from third to first, they’ll have to get through Fuquay-Varina on Sept. 30.
Middle Creek: A two-week homestand with Holly Springs on Oct. 7 and Fuquay-Varina on a live-televised Thursday game on Oct. 13 should decide the conference title.
Panther Creek: It’s already a big rivalry, but the Oct. 7 showdown with Green Hope could sort out the middle-of-the-pack SWAC.
Preseason coaches poll
1. Middle Creek
3. Holly Springs
4. Panther Creek
5. Green Hope
8. Athens Drive
9. Apex Friendship
Note: Coaches could not vote for their own team.
Previous 10 conference champs
2015: Middle Creek
2014: Green Hope*, Panther Creek
2013: Middle Creek
2012: Middle Creek
2011: Middle Creek*, Fuquay-Varina
2010: Fuquay-Varina*, Middle Creek
2009: Middle Creek
2007: Athens Drive, Fuquay-Varina, Middle Creek
*-won head-to-head meeting with co-champ in regular season