The high school football season will kick off Friday night with several area teams having high hopes for conference titles and deep runs into the playoffs.
Southern Durham won the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3AA title in 2013 and Wake Forest, which tied for fourth in the Cap Eight 4A during the regular season, raced to its second 4AA title appearance in four years.
Southwest Wake 4A’s Middle Creek reached the 4AA semifinals after beating perennial power Garner in the quarterfinals and Durham Hillside looks like a state title contender from the PAC-6 4A.
There is optimism in every direction, but the Cap Eight 4A looks particularly strong.
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Wake Forest, which had league losses to Wakefield, Leesville Road and Sanderson by a total of 12 points, returns a healthy co-Cap Eight 4A Player of the Year Bryce Love (181 carries for 1,914 yards and 24 touchdowns).
Love is one of the fastest high school football players in the country, but he was hampered by a groin injury for much of the Cougars’ postseason run. He was not a factor in a 59-21 loss to Charlotte Mallard Creek in the 4AA title game.
The Cougars finished the season 12-5, including a 4-3 record in the conference, which is an indication of how strong the conference was and is expected to be again this season.
“Our league, in my opinion, is one of the toughest in the state,” Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas said, adding that the Cougars’ perennially strong defense will have to be proven this year. “We’re going to put more focus on being better prepared every night.”
Wake Forest narrowly topped conference foe Millbrook in the third round of its playoff run, ending what was a breakout year for the Wildcats.
Millbrook coach Clarence Inscore hopes to see his team improve upon its 10-4 (5-2) record from last season.
The Wildcats relied heavily on their defense last season and return linebacker Julian Williams, outside linebacker James Smith-Williams, an N.C. State recruit, defensive back Raul Oquendo and defensive end Kengera Daniel, a national recruiting target.
Millbrook also returns junior quarterback Reid Herring, who threw for more than 2,000 yards, and senior Marcus Marshall, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards and is picking up scholarship offers.
“Our first goal is to win the conference title and the next thing is to win a state championship, something that’s never been done at Millbrook High School,” Inscore said. “I know that’s a difficult feat, but that’s something we talk about often. That’s the goal.”
Easy to overlook after Wake Forest’s playoff run and Millbrook’s defensive veterans is that Wakefield won its first outright Cap Eight 4A title since 2005 last year. The Wolverines finished 11-2 (6-1) before falling in the second round of the playoffs. Both losses were to Millbrook.
Returning for Wakefield is senior Kelton Whitehead, who led the Wolverines with 1,022 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns (two receiving).
Leesville Road, which tied for second in the conference with Millbrook after winning at least a share of the conference title for the previous three seasons, now is under the leadership of former South Granville coach Mike Hobgood.
The Pride will have a different look, as well, having graduated several big playmakers. Hobgood helped build South Granville into a postseason regular, going 62-48 over nine years, including 3-8 records the first two years before making the state playoffs the final seven.
Ben Kolstad led his first Sanderson team to a 6-6 record, including a 4-3 Cap Eight 4A mark that included a win against Wake Forest. Sanderson had won two games in 2012 and none in 2011.
Linebacker Cole Nigro leads a crew that gained confidence with the last-second win against Wake Forest in 2013.
Heritage had a fast start last year before dropping three of the final four games of the regular season and then falling in the first round of the playoffs. Heritage, entering into its fourth year of varsity competition, finished with a .500 record for the second straight year and boasts its largest senior class yet.
The seniors, including quarterback Blake Walters (80 of 161 passes for 1,203 yards), make up nearly half of the roster.
Broughton coach Billy Lane said the Caps made progress last year despite a 1-10 record with a league win against Enloe. “We’re remaining focused on the progress,” Lane said. “We’re going out every day with the idea of getting a little better.”
Veteran coach Steve Johnston, who had a 195-91 record and a state title at Burlington Cummings, brings optimism to Enloe. He said the Eagles have as much skilled personnel as he has coached.