The coaches of the Big Eight Conference believe they’ve got the most competitive and maybe the best overall league in North Carolina high school football. They’ve got plenty of evidence to support the claim.
In addition to Southern Durham, last year’s 3AA state champions, three other Big Eight teams won two-thirds of their games. Five league members went to the playoffs, and three of those stayed in until knocked out in rematches with Southern on its way to the state finals.
Southern head coach Darius Robinson, who served as an assistant in both conferences, thinks the Spartans took a step up when they moved from the PAC-6 4A to the Big Eight 3A.
“Maybe it’s not the right thing to say, but I believe the Big Eight is a better conference than the PAC-6 over the past two years,” Robinson said. “The winner of the Big Eight is probably going to get another chance to play for the state championship this year.”
Anyone who thinks Robinson is just spouting should take note that Southern was the last conference rival to beat Durham Hillside and win a PAC-6 title before the Hornets got on their current 29-game win streak in league play.
“When you look at the Big Eight, the first thing you see is the defending state champion at Southern Durham, and they’ve got almost everyone back,” said Northwood’s Bill Hall, the dean of Big Eight coaches with 14 years at the helm. “It’s like ACC basketball. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in this conference. The top five teams this year could all go a long way in the playoffs.”
A mutual admiration society has arisen among Southern, Orange, Cardinal Gibbons, Northwood and Chapel Hill – all of which seem to agree that anyone of them could be the conference champion.
That’s not just spin. Northwood finished fourth in the league last year, after dropping a 56-54 shootout at Southern. Orange finished second last year – losing only on the road at Southern, twice – but needed a last-second Hail Mary pass to escape fifth-place Chapel Hill with a 6-0 win.
“Every night is a dogfight in this conference,” said Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh.
Southern remains the consensus favorite to repeat as Big Eight champions, though common wisdom holds that it’ll be another close race.
The Spartans return nine defensive starters from last year’s 14-2, 7-0 team, and seven starters on offense, led by quarterback Kendall Hinton, the Big Eight’s offensive player of the year in 2013. He’s committed to Wake Forest.
All-conference running back William Cameron (West Virginia) also has committed early.
Southern lost all-conference receivers Maurice Trowell (N.C. State), Derrick Mason (N.C. Central), but has added Chapel Hill transfer Aaron Hirsch.
Orange (14-2, 6-1) ended last year with gifted quarterback Garrett Cloer sitting on the sideline after suffering a second-half concussion at Southern.He’s returned bigger and stronger after summer workouts, now standing 6-5, 215 pounds. He passed for 2,800 yards and 34 touchdowns last year.
Cloer leads a backfield with most of its players back, including leading rusher Tay Jones (1,800 yards, 25 touchdowns) and big fullback Mike Bolden, fronted by all-state guard Zach Waggoner.
Northwood (8-4, 4-3) returns senior quarterback Ti Pinnix, who passed for 3,186 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. Running back Kadarus Rone and wideouts Imoh Udoh and Jalen Smith also return.
All-conference linebacker Jared Worthy and preseason all-state tackle Elijah Washington lead a veteran Charger defense.
Cardinal Gibbons (9-4, 5-2) may have been hit harder by graduations than any other Big Eight team, losing quarterback Shawn Stankavage (3,564 yards passing, 1,058 yards rushing) – who’s now at Vanderbilt – and wide receiver Dante DiMaggio (1,180 yards).
The Crusaders may expect David Smith (7.0 yards per rush) to carry the ball more. But they still have Earl Gill, who caught 75 balls last year for 1,066 yards.
The Gibbons defense returns 10 players who saw action in more than half of last year’s games, led by linebacker Chris Karazin (12.5 tackles a game.)
Two transfers from 4A rival East Chapel Hill – quarterback Connor Stough and all-PAC-6 wideout Arkavious Parks – increase expectations that Chapel Hill (4-8, 3-4) will repeat as a playoff team. All-state guard Logan Tisch (6-3, 300) anchors the offensive line.
Cedar Ridge (2-9, 2-5) is looking to rebuild with interim coach Chris Casey and veteran quarterback Peyton Pappas.
Oxford Webb (3-8, 1-6) and Northern Vance (0-11, 0-7) still look at least one year away from chasing a playoff spot. They demonstrated the darker side of the Big Eight’s competitiveness last year with a bench-clearing brawl after the Warriors won 21-20 at Northern Vance, extending the Vikings’ losing streak to 21 games.