Chapel Hill: Sports

Football: the Big Eight Conference is living up to its billing

Quarterback Kendall Hinton (2) has led No. 1 Southern Durham to wins over Hillside, Northern Durham and No. 8 Scotland County.
Quarterback Kendall Hinton (2) has led No. 1 Southern Durham to wins over Hillside, Northern Durham and No. 8 Scotland County. RAY BLACK III

The Big Eight 3A is living up to Southern Durham head coach Darius Robinson’s preseason prediction that the conference was better than most 4A leagues.

“I think team for team the Big Eight is better top to bottom than the PAC-6,” Robinson said before a 12-9 win Aug. 29 at PAC-6 member Hillside, which started the season in the Associated Press Top 10 and hasn’t lost a conference game in five years.

Robinson’s claim looks obviously true, given the PAC-6’s tailspin this season. The Big Eight was 9-1 against PAC-6 teams this season after Southern’s 28-0 shutout of Northern Durham.

PAC-6 teams are a combined 2-28 so far.

Riverside (1-4) has the only PAC-6 win against a Big Eight team, having defeated (2-2) Cedar Ridge by a 33-13 score. That and a win by Hillside at Gray Collegiate Academy, a first-year program in South Carolina, constitute the sum total of PAC-6 victories this year.

Heading into this week’s kickoff of Big Eight’s Conference games, the league’s teams have the best combined record (24-8) of any conference in the greater Triangle area. Its top four teams Southern (4-0), Orange (4-0), Northwood (4-0) and Chapel Hill (4-0) are still unbeaten. Cardinal Gibbons is 3-1, its only loss coming at 4A Green Hope, 24-23, in Week 1 of the season.

Southern has beaten two PAC-6 teams (Hillside and Northern), while Chapel Hill has beaten Riverside and East Chapel Hill. Orange dispatched three PAC-6 teams this season: Roxboro Person, Northern Durham and Durham Riverside.

“How do you improve on that? That’s some pretty strong stuff against some stiff competition,” said Orange coach Pat Moser, whose team’s only two losses last year were both at Southern, once in the regular season and then in the NCHSAA playoffs.

Even usually hapless Northern Vance has improved this year. The Vikings defeated archrival Southern Vance 28-12 last week to snap the state’s longest losing streak at 24.

“If there’s a better 3A conference in this state, I’d like to see it,” Northwood coach Bill Hall said.

Like its collegiate namesake, the Southeastern 4A Conference can still stake a claim to being the East’s toughest conference. Its 25-9 combined record coming into this week included unranked Richmond County’s 55-54 overtime upset win at No. 1 Matthews Butler. The SEC’s Pinecrest was 5-0 and Scotland 4-1 after last Friday’s wins.

But the Big Eight 3A looks capable of playing with SEC teams. Southern won 34-28 at Scotland on Sept. 11, the Scots’ first loss in Pate Stadium in more than two years.

Other Triangle conferences have good teams if not the balance of the Big Eight. The Southwest Wake Athletics Conference has a combined 20-14 record against non-conference opponents, led by No. 8 Middle Creek at 4-0 and Green Hope at 4-1. The Cap-8 is 18-14, including No. 10 Wake Forest’s 4-0 record, and the Greater Neuse is 16-16. Cleveland is 4-1, but the other Two Rivers teams are a combined 7-18.

Like their SEC counterparts, most Big Eight coaches think their toughest games are against each other.

Northwood finished fourth in the Big Eight last year, but only after losing a 56-54 shootout at Southern. Orange was a top 10 team last year, but needed a Hail Mary pass as time expired to escape fifth-place Chapel Hill with a 6-0 win. It was eventual state champion Southern that knocked Chapel Hill, Cardinal Gibbons and Orange out of the playoffs.

“It’s a dogfight every week in this conference,” Hall said. “We tell our players all the time: ‘You better wear your work clothes every Friday night in this conference.’”

Still, Robinson considered the win at Scotland, then ranked by the Associated Press at No. 3 among North Carolina’s 4A teams, to be a watershed for his team in his first year as head coach. He ranked it close to the Spartans’ state championship win last year over Shelby Crest.

“It was a huge win for our program,” Robinson said. “We’ve always had it as a goal to be at the level of a program like Scotland, and now we’ve overcome that obstacle.”