News & Observer high school sports editor Tim Stevens and the N&O’s community sports editors will talk about high school sports issues each week.
Q. Which team in your area has the best chance of winning a state championship this year? Why do you think so?
Stevens: I’d go with Broughton in boys golf. They won last year and may be improved. They can have off days at the top and still win.
Elliot Warnock, Chapel Hill News: The winner of the Bg Eight Conference in baseball. Orange is very talented, but so is Cardinal Gibbons. The top half of Orange’s lineup is a high school version of Murderers Row; you can’t walk any of them for fear of who comes up next to the plate. Still, Gibbons won last week at Orange, earning a split in their series and proving that great pitching beats great hitting.
J. Mike Blake, The Cary News: Out of the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, I’d go with Middle Creek’s boys lacrosse team. Because the Mustangs lost in the second round of the 4A playoffs, we’ve forgotten that they lost two games by one goal apiece all of last season. The playoff loss to Jordan has haunted them for almost 365 days, which helps them hone in on the task at hand.
D. Clay Best, Garner-Cleveland Record: I have to go softball, with Princeton. The Bulldogs were two one-run losses away from making the state championship series a year ago and have a veteran group of talented, proven players. And if that wasn’t enough, the Princeton softball team has seven players who have already won a state championship – as members of the Bulldogs’ volleyball squad. You can’t find a much better playoff resume than the one this group has.
Aaron Moody, Eastern Wake News: At this point, considering how the season has started, I’m thinking the chances of a state champion coming out of the eastern Wake area are not very good. But when I think of spring sports playoffs as of late, I tend to think of East Wake softball first.
Q. Who is your best dark horse?
Moody: Again, East Wake softball. The term ‘dark horse’ may not be giving due credit to the Warriors, who started the season off 4-0, including wins over Cary and Millbrook. But the Greater Neuse River 4A is historically competitive in softball, with the top four or so teams no strangers to making runs in the postseason.
Warnock: With virtually everyone back from last year’s 2A championship team, Carrboro looks great in tennis. The only problem so far for the Jaguars is that they can’t find tough competition in their conference. They’re not being tested much and are beating everyone too easily.
Blake: Apex’s girls lacrosse team. Offense isn’t a problem but Cardinal Gibbons is a strong challenger in the East.
Best: I’m stuck on softball and I’d go with North Johnston softball. The Panthers might be a year away if you strictly look at the ages on the roster, but they have a great mix of veterans as well, led by Kaylynn Batten, one of the best hitters in the state over the past two seasons. The Panthers’ young pitching appears to be getting better and better as well.
Q. How about a favorite and a dark horse for the entire area?
Best: I’ll add another one of my own here since I haven’t seen a lot out of my area (Garner/JoCo) so far. South Johnston’s baseball team will not have an amazing overall record because of the non-conference schedule. But they have proven players who made a surprise run to the Eastern 3A Regional Finals last year. And they’ve got the deadliest big-game, big-moment hitter in the Triangle if not the state: Joseph Johnson. He of the multiple game-winning home runs last season and he is already doing the same thing again this year. (See his bottom of the seventh, walk off 3-run dinger against Triton on March 24.)
So as long as teams keep pitching to Johnson in big spots, the Trojans are a big playoff threat.
Warnock: Hillside has been a top-10 contender in boys track for years. Hurdles state champion Marcus Krah is a triple threat in sprints, hurdles and jumps and adaptive athlete Desmond Jackson gives Hillside an inside track on more points than most programs in N.C.
With a coaching staff that includes former Olympian Joan Nesbit Mabe, Chapel Hill’s female runners proved their potential by winning the team title at the Carolina Relays. Other area teams had more individual first places, but Chapel Hill’s depth supplied more points.
Stevens: Wakefield in boys tennis, although an injury at the top can have a major impact. As a dark horse, how about the Broughton girls in soccer?
Blake: I’m not sure what would stop Cardinal Gibbons from winning a 3A boys tennis title. It’s a sleepwalk until next year, when the Crusaders move to 4A at long last. Best chance for a dark horse area-wide is baseball – take your pick. As last year showed, whoever finishes second or even third in the Cap Eight or Southwest Wake could wind up in the fourth or fifth round.
Moody: It may just be me being a product of the area, but I always expect a Cap 8 soccer team to win. I’ll be keeping eyes on Cleveland baseball, a team that has beat some quality teams, but also lost to the same quality teams already this season.