This is the last roundtable of the athletics season for The News & Observer’s high school sports panel of five community sports editors, headed up by J. Mike Blake.
The N&O panel features:
▪ D. Clay Best (Smithfield Herald, Clayton News-Star, Garner-Cleveland Record)
▪ J. Mike Blake (The Cary News and Southwest Wake News)
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▪ Aaron Moody (Eastern Wake News)
▪ Jessika Morgan (Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News)
▪ W.E. Warnock (Chapel Hill News and The Durham News)
What were some of your favorite storylines from the 2015-16 athletics year?
Best: The trek of Garner’s boys basketball team through the season. Watching the reigning state champs navigate almost everything but an old time rival (Cary, who beat the Trojans twice, including in the regional final on a buzzer-beater) successfully always brought intrigue. Watching the Trojans handle the pressure of matching up with an old rival (Millbrook) in their last game in the to-be-remodeled Garner High gym was something to remember. The decision by standout Thomas Allen to transfer out of state for the 2016-17 season finished off a newsworthy year for Garner.
Blake: There was a “team of destiny” feel around Cary’s boys basketball team all season. Buzzer-beaters and an undefeated regular season took a school and community that’s been through some rough athletic times in recent years and set it ablaze. Middle Creek’s Cinderella run to the 4A soccer title game isn’t appreciated enough. For a team with six losses to get to that stage is unheard of. The last 10 East final winners had seven losses – combined.
Moody: East Wake girls basketball got over a years-long losing streak to Southeast Raleigh with a 6-point win in Raleigh in January. Of course, they gave it back with a 9-point loss in Wendell in February. But it was an enjoyable season in general in the Greater Neuse River as far as girls basketball goes, especially out my way. Southeast finished with one league loss, East Wake with two and Knightdale with three, all with some common punishment dealt. In the end, East Wake faced a rematch with 2015 state runner up Millbrook (a 2-point winner over the Warriors in December) in the third round of the 4A playoffs in February, and the Wildcats eked out a win there and even closer against Southeast en route to a state title. We’ve had some pretty good teams around the Triangle lately.
Morgan: Broughton volleyball comes to mind. The Capitals had lost in the East finals to Greenville Rose the previous year, going undefeated until that point. I was intrigued to see what they would do in 2015-16, and, though they fell to the eventual 4A champion, they didn’t disappoint. Broughton had returned a solid core from that 20-1 team from 2014 and gained a new addition in Kalee Vanderhorst, a powerful junior outside hitter, who was ironically from the Greenville area (Conley). It was exciting to see how they would respond. Broughton again went undefeated, until meeting Gibbons in the playoffs. The Caps finished 22-1, and I’d like to see this team get over that hump and have its day.
Warnock: “Favorite” would not be the right word for watching Carrboro struggle in football. But it was perhaps the most significant. The Jaguars had to forfeit three games because of a lack of enough healthy players. Fans might worry that this situation, like East Chapel Hill’s three forfeits in 2014, could be the proverbial “canary in the coalmine” that foreshadows the long, slow decline of full-contact football in public high school sports.
What game or games you covered won’t soon be forgotten?
Best: The Garner-Millbrook fourth-round boys basketball battle was everything high school sports should be: a packed gym, two great teams with long histories, two legendary coaches, history in the offing and a regional final bid on the line.
From the fall, the Middle Creek-Fuquay-Varina overtime clash was everything you want high school football in the Triangle to be: amazingly competitive, huge and supportive fan bases and kids on both sides who realized how lucky they were to play in such a special game.
Blake: I wasn’t at as many games as previous years, so my personal list doesn’t include iconic games like Middle Creek’s called-off goal in the 4A girls soccer title, Cary’s incredible buzzer-beater to get by Garner and go to the boys basketball state championship.
The second Apex-Cary boys basketball game was a treat. I may go 10 years before seeing a game as cleanly and exceptionally played as that. At one point the teams had combined to make 13 straight 3-point attempts. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Apex hit a shot to go ahead with a few seconds left and Cary answered with a buzzer-beater. No one deserved to lose.
Moody: I end up covering East Wake softball a lot in the postseason. The recent, first-round loss for the Warriors at D.H. Conley was kind of the quietly memorable type. I doubt I will forget it. The Vikings reminded they were the defending state champs, which the Warriors were well aware of, with some pre-game propaganda. It didn’t phase the Warriors, who were having one of those “team of destiny” years themselves. They played five-plus innings neck and neck before Conley took the lead for good. First round, yes. Still will be memorable.
Morgan: It’s going to be tough to forget Millbrook’s Kai Crutchfield’s game-winning shot in the 4A girls’ basketball title game. It’s one thing to bank in a shot at the buzzer – it’s another to do it to win a state championship. I’ve seen a few buzzer-beaters in my three years of covering prep sports, and they all give you this fuzzy feeling in your gut. Crutchfield’s brave shot, one where she grabbed the offensive rebound and managed to shoot over a defender inches taller than her, will probably stick with anyone who was there for some time.
Warnock: Carrboro’s 1-0 win after double overtime against Forbush for the NCHSAA girls soccer 2A championship, the Jaguars’ second OT championship game with Forbush, was even more tense than last year’s title game. Also, the last PAC-6 baseball game of the year, where Cardinal Gibbons completed a season-long pursuit and takedown of league-leading Northern Durham to win the conference championship, was replete with deep emotions all around. Northern Durham’s sincere congratulations over the PA to their rivals seemed even classier than usual in the face of the pain felt by the home crowd.
What senior performances stood out the most?
Best: The reign of Princeton’s Kelsey Peedin, Taylor Carroll and Hailey Wood will be matched by few others. The trio won state 1A volleyball and softball championships and helped lead the way as the Bulldogs’ Class of 2016 compiled 179 combined wins in volleyball and softball. And their contributions to the recently finished state softball championship were easy to see: both at the plate and defensively.
Blake: Three-time 4A singles champ Nick Stachowiak should go down as the best high school tennis player in Wake County. He never lost a match, singles or doubles, in his three healthy seasons. Cory Gensler did everything you could imagine a senior boys basketball player doing – I lost count of the buzzer-beaters that either preserved an undefeated regular-season or a playoff run to the title game.
Perhaps no senior earned more respect from an on-court and off-court perspective than Apex’s Ian Boyd. For four years in basketball and football he played hard, exceptional and without a hint of cockiness.
And who could forget Panther Creek’s Sammi Smith and Jordan Strickland? The second four-time doubles champions ever.
Moody: I have to say that of East Wake quarterback Tripp Harrington. If the dude made me nervous rolling laterally at times, I can only imagine what coach John Poulnott and his crew were probably feeling. But more times than not, especially his senior season, Tripp was a super threat with his feet even if he rolled backwards, first. And his ability to toss it off with power sometimes blindsided opponents.
Tripp as a QB competed with most local running backs for most rushing yards his senior season (1,187 yards, 16 touchdowns). He was also a Triangle top-10er in passing and passing efficiency, completing 168 of 267 tosses for 2,507 yards and 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
Also can’t deny the senior runs, much less the career runs, of Knightdale girls basketball standout Mikaya Wilson (Appalachian State, McDonald’s All-American nominee) and East Wake girls basketball star Angel Rizor (Cincinnati).
Morgan: So many, right? St. David’s running back Melvin Briggs had a heck of a senior year. He poured so much of his heart and soul onto the football field every game, even down to the state title loss to Arendell Parrott. His character was always on display, too. The Warriors were stomping an opponent in the playoffs last season, so Melvin was limited in the second half. But before the game ended, he had one more chance to score. Instead of taking it in himself, he tossed the ball to a teammate so he could get his first touchdown of the year.
Warnock: Track athletes, by and large, impressed me the most this year – hurdler and jumper Marcus Krah at Hillside, middle distance stars Harrison Young (Chapel Hill) and Lily Price (East Chapel Hill), Carrboro’s multi-champion Magnus Herweyer in shot put and discus ... just to name a few. Swimming all-American Claire Deselm was great, and she’s not done yet. Most memorable: the fearlessness and determination of Greyson McGee and his teammates playing football for Carrboro in what would be a winless season; McGee’s defiant attitude toward life’s vicissitudes provided the finest local example in years of why sports matter, how they teach so much more than athletic skills, and why they should remain a vibrant part of a public school education.
What storylines are you most intrigued by heading into next year?
Best: Garner’s shift to a temporary home for the next two years at South Garner leaves the Trojans without a true home environment. Gone will be the intimidating atmosphere that Trojan Stadium can be on a Friday night in the fall. Yes, the Blue Crew and Garner fans will be there in full force, but will it have the same feeling?
And the treks of two football teams: South Johnston as it adjusts to new head coach Matt Riggsbee with a veteran, talented football squad that seems poised for a big year and Clayton as it begins play under South Johnston’s former coach Hunter Jenks. Adding even more to the storyline, the two teams meet on Sept. 1.
Blake: Apex Friendship’s first year of varsity football will be one to watch. The last year of realignment will hit some conferences hard, while others will eagerly be counting down the days. It’s not that the new conferences that start in 2017 will be bad – they’re great in my opinion – it’s that the upcoming changes will really start to sink in.
Moody: Knightdale opened up its head football position, one coach Cedric Dargan intends to reapply for. Both Knightdale and East Wake have questions to answer, having lost virtually irreplaceable players to graduation.
Morgan: I’d like to see how Wake Forest football will fare without Dexter Lawrence – but with his little brother, Devon. The Cougars will return some quality players on both sides, but with Wakefield and Millbrook waiting in the wings, I’m interested to see how the conference race will pan out.
Warnock: New head coaches starting out next fall at Carrboro, Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro system is losing a lot of veteran, quality teachers. I can’t remember entering a year with so many new faces in high school sports.