The Greater Neuse River 4A Conference looks more like the conference of old than it resembles the 2013 season.
That’s mainly because defending champion Knightdale is in full transition mode and perennial power Garner appears to be poised to make a return to its role as conference favorite.
And yet, the race for the title has the potential to be more jumbled than usual. Five teams finished within a game of third place last fall and there are reasons to like all of those teams’ chances to make the playoffs this season.
“It’s the Greater Neuse River Conference, you don’t know for sure what you’re going to get each week,” said East Wake coach John Poulnott, who is entering his fifth year at the helm is the conference’s most-tenured head coach. “You just know night in and night out, you’re going to be in for a battle.”
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Defending conference champion Knightdale (9-2, 6-0) has a new coach, Cedric Dargan, and only four starters returning from the school’s first conference championship-winning football team.
“I think the conference race is a toss up,” said Clayton coach Randy Pinkowski who begins his second year at the Comets’ helm. “Knightdale and Southeast are dealing with coaching chances but they’ve had success in the past and you know they’re going to be very athletic. Harnett Central will be improved, West Johnston is headed in the right direction and Garner seems to reload.
“I think the team to beat could be East Wake; they’re the sleeper if you will.”
The sleeper superstar in the conference — and when you have a returnee like Garner’s Nyheim Hines and his 60 touchdowns returning everybody else falls into a sleeper category — is likely East Wake runner Damontay Rhem. He was an all-conference selection, ran for 1,360 yards last season and was on the minds of several opposing coaches as they looked at the conference race.
Garner (10-4, 5-2) made a solid playoff run last year despite struggling on defense. The Trojans say that unit will be much improved and the offense has the potential to be high scoring with Hines leading the way once again.
Southeast Raleigh (4-7, 3-3) has a new leader, head coach Michael Thibodeau, who takes over a team that has a talented returnee at quarterback in junior Dylan Parham (6-foot-5, 200) who already has a scholarship offer from N.C. State. Cameron Marshmon is another Bulldog to watch and will lineup at slotback and cornerback. Several Ivy League schools are recruiting him.
West Johnston (4-7, 2-4) will be led by one of the league’s most versatile players, quarterback/linebacker Cameron Williams.
“He’ll play defense because we need to win,” said West Johnston coach Jimmy Williams. “He’s a special athlete with good speed, and is very physical. He’s a competitor, and he wants to win here. I wish I had a team full of Cameron Williamses.”
Harnett Central is coming off of a disappointing conference season (1-9, 0-6), but picked up one of the top offensive minds in the game during the off-season: offensive coordinator Joe Salas, who led South Johnston to the state 3AA championship game in 2009.
Rolesville joins the varsity football fracas in the conference after playing an only junior varsity gridiron schedule in 2013. The Rams, who went 2-5 in the league in junior varsity last year, will develop experience against a non-conference slate that includes Lee County, Panther Creek, Heritage and 2013 state 4AA finalist Wake Forest.
Mike Potter contributed.