Football is back. Every team has its expectations, coaches are pumped up for what could be and the players are so excited to kick off the season and finally hit someone on another team when it really matters.
To me, high school football season is the best season of them all and especially so after sitting idle over the summer.
Every year there are surprises, disappointments and programs that take the next step in solidifying their place among our state’s football dynasties.
This season is great because we have all of that. We have big-time college coaches checking out practices in the area looking for the next megastar. Many of the bonafide stars are already cemented with their college choices, but plenty of intrigue remains with where others will end up playing on Saturdays.
But the biggest mystery of all is the teams. Where will they end up in the standings? Are there any teams making big jumps this season? Who are the next big stars? Which teams will take a step back this season after big performances last year?
So many questions, huh?
Below is my annual conference breakdown that has it everything a football fan needs to know – from the stars to make sure you watch for, to predictions for each team, the order of finish in each conference and much more.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Charlotte Christian: 8-1; 4-0
Providence Day: 7-2; 3-1
Charlotte Latin: 6-4; 2-2
Country Day: 5-5; 1-3
Covenant Day: 3-7; 0-3
(Note: Covenant Day doesn’t play Providence Day in 2019)
Charlotte Christian is the cream of the crop and will be until someone can step up and beat them. Similar to last season, it seems like Providence Day will be their biggest challengers, but the question remains as to if the Chargers can make the jump and overtake the CISAA’s throne.
This year those two should again be mostly evenly matched.
Christian has won 21 straight games and will put that to the test on opening night against power Sun Valley.
New quarterback Matthew Tuomala inherits a group of experienced playmakers like JB Awowlo, Henry Rutledge, Logan Jones and others who will replace a senior-heavy lineup from last year.
The offense won’t skip a beat.
The Knights are loaded up front defensively and at linebacker and if their secondary can quickly come together, they may not lose if they can get out of Week 1 unscathed.
Providence Day will be extremely talented, and especially with highly touted defensive ends Jacoble Cowan and Kedrick Bingley-Jones, who committed to North Carolina.
While the defense should be stout, the fate of the Chargers rests on the shoulders of quarterback Cody Cater and their playmakers mainly including Nickel Fields and Jesiah Davis.
There is no question the Chargers have the talent to knock off the Knights, but they need that first win to prove to themselves they can do it.
To me, Charlotte Latin and defending NCISAA Division II champs Country Day are about even, but a slightly more difficult schedule and a couple of questions give the Hawks a slight edge.
AJ Tolber is the one guy who will make the biggest difference for Latin, but coach Justin Hardin has a senior-heavy team ready to get back to the title game after winning it all in 2017.
To do so, receivers Andrew Sumichrast, Grayson Clements and Co. are going to have to help quarterback Jake Helfrich increase the scoring output, and Tolber, Bennett Smith and Randy Johnson need to keep Latin on the same defensive trajectory.
Country Day, meanwhile, is coming off the Bucs first title since 2010, but has a lot of questions.
Russell Tabor is back at quarterback and Quentin Cooper is a superstar at running back who will run behind Julian Swann and Jack Stajos. While the Bucs have a lot of guys they like at receiver, they will need a pecking order to emerge.
Defensively, Stajos, Swann, Thomas Shields and Hunter Engel key a unit that should be good, but will need to replace some talent in the secondary.
Covenant Day had a great first varsity season, taking advantage of a weak schedule to win six games.
This year, they take a major uptick in competition and a new coach (Peter McSwarin) into the season.
Quarterback Robert Stone had some huge performances and is capable of putting up big numbers, but he’ll need to more often this year.
Edwin Barnes is a next-level talent at receiver and David Billiard is among the area’s top linemen, but the Lions will need huge years from Ben Blackard, Josh Lee and Will Turner if the offense is to keep up.
Most of those same guys start on defense, so quality depth will be the key to keeping the Lions competitive.
Projected Order of Finish
Myers Park 11-0; 7-0
Butler 8-3; 6-1
Rocky River 6-5; 4-3
Porter Ridge 6-5; 4-3
Independence 5-6; 3-4
Hickory Ridge 4-7; 3-4
Garinger 3-8; 2-5
East Meck 0-11; 0-7
The Southwestern 4A is a league with clearly defined contenders, middle of the road teams who could surprise in a good or bad way and the non-contenders who will struggle greatly in the league.
Last season, it was Butler who cruised through the league unscathed, but it was Myers Park with the long playoff run and the final statement as they overwhelmed the Bulldogs 33-8 in the playoffs.
Those are clearly the two teams atop the league this season, although there are many questions behind them.
Myers Park is loaded offensively. They tout Alabama commit Drake Maye at quarterback, Moose Muhammad (Texas A&M) and Porter Rooks (N.C. State) among the talented receivers, Logan Mauldin will make a big impact at tight end and play on Saturdays and brothers Tim and Jacob Newman are receiving plenty of recruiting interest. The offensive line is big and quick, but the Mustangs may start three sophomores, which could be an issue early.
North Carolina commit Cameron Roseman-Sinclair is always around the ball and joins Roe Chitwood among the defensive leaders. There are huge expectations on this team as they look to join the handful of elites in the state, and a title would quickly validate the work coach Scott Chadwick has done with this program.
Butler is the mainstay powerhouse who has remained among the state’s top teams in all of coach Brian Hales’ eight seasons.
This year will be no exception. They will be able to run the ball at will with power back Jamal Worthy picking the holes made behind Trey Richburg, Leo Arredondo and Anthony Carter. If the other side of the line develops and Lamont Brooks can get a few touches, the run game can be elite.
New quarterback Parish Metzger will have to throw some to keep defenses honest. He’ll love throwing to long and nimble receiver Josh Barnette.
Muhammad Al-Taher, Isaih Burney, twins Donovan and Darius Law, Jacalyn Morrison and John Park will have the Butler defense as one of the league’s best again.
While Butler and Myers Park are the clear-cut favorites, there is an interesting mix of four teams – Rocky River, Independence, Hickory Ridge and Porter Ridge – who could go either way.
I think the Ravens are the team who will make a big jump.
Rocky River’s duo of Kalib Jennings and Kirkland Williams, who also is the team’s top returning receiver, will be among the league’s rushing leaders despite splitting carries.
Quarterback Korey Hailey has plenty of other weapons to throw to including receivers Isaiah McIlwain and Tyrone McNair and big tight end target Sinceer Scott.
The offensive line is stout and experienced, and there is depth to get them off the field at times.
Kaishaun Royster, Kalil Alexander, Brian Grier and Korian Sharpe are all-conference level players who will lead a defense that should greatly improve a unit that allowed more than 25 points per game a season ago.
Independence is another team headed in the right direction and possibly headed for their first playoff berth since 2015.
There are playmakers galore with guys like Shai Wheeler, Trevor Bryan, Brian Morgan and Brevin Caldwell leading a very underrated receiving corps and stud defensive lineman Tyson Clawson is a red zone threat at tight end.
The defense, which returns Clawson, Omar Zazueta, Dante Anderson and Sean Pruitt among others, allowed over three touchdowns a season ago but will be much improved.
Porter Ridge rode the coattails of a wonderful senior class and made it all the way to the regional finals.
With those losses, there has to be some fallout and I think there will be a little.
But there is still plenty of talent.
The only returning offensive starters are linemen Sean Ahaotu-Simelane and Jason Gonzlaez, but watch out for some of the skill guys, including receiver/running back Kirkland Harris, receiver Nick Horstkamp and running backs Brandon Perry and Alex Chapman. New quarterback Nathan Cox has looked great this summer and is more than capable of leading that group.
Lineman Davidson Carroll and linebacker Dylan Burdette lead a cache of nine starters, including Harris, Chapman and Perry, that may make the loss of all of that offense a moot point.
Sam Grenier is out after one year as coach at Hickory Ridge, who turns to Jupiter Wilson. The Ragin’ Bulls went just 5-6 with Grenier a year after he improbably led Harding to the state title, and there isn’t much hope they’ll improve too much.
Quarterback Silas Cruse played well in spot duty last season. Running backs Mookie McWilliams and Nolan Carey are capable on the ground but six of the Bulls top seven receivers from last year graduated so they’ll need guys to step up there. Charlie Blazi and Tyrell Davis lead a defense averaged barely over two touchdowns a game but lost lots of talent.
In 2018, Garinger won three games under veteran coach Jeff Caldwell, who ended the Wildcats 55-game losing streak in 2017 and has the team undeniably headed in the right direction.
However, life in the Southwestern 4A allows him a very small ceiling.
Quarterback Antonio Smith led the team in passing and rushing last season and is back as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference.
Peter Guest and Shawn Hatchett lead a defense that allowed more than 35 points per game and must improve.
East Meck is going to struggle once again after closing the season with seven consecutive losses.
It’s more of a numbers problem with the Eagles, who have so many guys going both ways and depth an issue at most positions.
Quarterback Trey Truitt led the team in passing and rushing and will be a key once again. The line is a little small in numbers, but they have talented backs in Andrew Scott and Marques Flemming.
Linebacker Lawrence Campbell is one of the top returnees, but the unit gave up an average of 36.7 points per game.
So. Meck 7
Projected Order of Finish
Ardrey Kell 7-4; 5-1
West Meck 6-5; 4-2
Providence 5-6; 4-2
Olympic 4-7; 3-3
Harding 4-7; 1-5
South Meck 2-9;1-5
Berry 1-10; 0-6
The So. Meck 7 has been totally turned over in just one season as six of the seven teams in the league have new head coaches roaming the sideline including Joe Evans (South Meck), Weslee Ward (Providence), Greg Jachym (Ardrey Kell), Andrew Howard (Berry), Brandon Thompson (Olympic) and Nick Mata (West Meck).
With that much turnover, it’s tough to predict which teams will come out with the fire of their new coach and his staff or which teams will continue to struggle.
The conference was a very strange one with only West Meck posting a winning record and the Hawks tying Ardrey Kell and Providence for the league title after those two teams were not good to start 2018.
I don’t see a three-way tie coming to fruition this season, but I do see Ardrey Kell as the frontrunner with a potentially friendly early season schedule.
From there, it could get interesting.
Ardrey Kell came on late last year, turing an ugly 0-5 start into a 5-7 overall record, but at 5-1 in league play a tri-championship the Knights ended up winning on a coin flip. Vance shut them out in the playoffs, but at least they got a taste of winning, something they may do a lot of this season.
The Knights have a realistic shot to start this season 4-1 with playmakers Michael Hetzel and Cedric Gray back at receiver.
The two combined for 112 receptions, 1,731 and 16 touchdowns because the Knights could not run the ball at all.
Quarterback Jared Joseph played really well at the end of last season and should keep teams honest with his feet while running backs Henry Bowen and Kaci Seegars try to improve on the anemic 3.6 yards the team averaged on the ground last year.
Five of the Knights top tacklers including Stephen Bauer and Gray, the North Carolina defensive back commit who locks down a whole side of the field on his own.
It could be a really good year for the Knights.
West Meck is another team hard to pinpoint. They were the best team in the conference last season, posting a 9-3 overall record, but the Hawks lost their leading passer, top two receivers (who combined for 97 catches, more than 2,000 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns) and nine of the team’s top 11 tacklers last season were seniors.
Senior running back J’Mari Taylor ran for more than 800 yards and is a great receiver out of the backfield but aside from his 24 catches only 11 receptions were made by three returning guys.
Defensively could be a struggle as well. The Hawks only allowed 20 points per game on the season, but got drubbed for 90 in two losses to close the season.
Providence lost a host of starters from last season and 16 seniors from their team, but they come back riding some of the momentum from the late-season push that saw them win five in a row after a disastrous 1-5 start.
The Panthers will be able to lean on their run game while the passing game figures it out. Sophomore Jamar Price is back after leading the team in rushing in 2018 and Jake Snapp is a shifty runner who will get plenty of carries.
All this will help new quarterback Holland Stallings adjust to life under center, although linemen Charles Charnock and Adam Boguski are exceptional and can only help there, too.
The receiving corps is inexperienced and the Panthers graduated their top five tacklers. Snapp is a ball hawk at one corner and watch out for disruptive defensive end Mason Adkins, a junior who had 15 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries and six sacks last year.
Olympic put up little resistance defensively as they allowed 34.6 points per game last season.
Marquise Flemming may be the best interior linemen in the conference. Last season, he had 54 tackles including 28 tackles for loss and added 10.5 sacks.
He’ll be the main focus of opposing offenses, so guys like Sahiem Binger, Jacob Hay and Kyle Lord will have to beat single coverage so they don’t double or even triple team Flemming.
Offensively, the Trojans have a cachet of skill guys if they can ever stop anyone on the other side of the ball.
Quarterback Sean Bowles is back after throwing for 1,500 yards and running for 400 more. Running backs Cameron Smith and Dailyn Young will see even more touches this season and will power the offense.
After winning it all in 2017, Harding won just two games last season beating only South Meck and lowly Berry.
However, the Rams boast two of the conference’s best playmakers in Dekerius Thompson and Maleik Faust. Thompson is the workhorse running back who Harding will ride this season while Faust is a guy that will get several handoffs a game, but also works the flats in the passing game. Both are big-time weapons, but have to go both ways in the Harding secondary.
Six-foot-four senior quarterback Jarrett Robinson will benefit from those two and the offense should be just fine.
Like other teams in the conference, the Rams must improve defensively as they allowed over 36 points per game last year.
Defensive tackle Barutti Mazangu, at 6-foot-1 and 330 pounds, and star defensive end Tylon Dunlap will look to reverse that trend and get the Rams back more in line with 2017.
South Meck is another team filled with uncertainty.
There is undoubtedly a new energy around there with Evans, the former Independence and Ardrey Kell head man, but how that plays onto the field for a team that went 3-8 and has five wins in their last 23 games remains to be seen.
The Sabres haven’t yet settled upon their quarterback after two-year starter Austin Grier transferred to Vance, but whichever of the three will benefit from Evans’ offense that is balanced but has a tendency to produce big quarterback numbers.
Whoever wins has a superstar in the making in Tigo Moss, who led the team in catches, yards and touchdowns.
The ultimate fate of the Sabres will be determined on defense, however.
The team surrendered 26 points per game and held just two teams under 20 points last season, which has to improve and should as the defensive scheme remains mostly the same as the previous regime.
Berry was the most offensive in the lack of defense category, allowing 39.9 points per game in their winless 2018 campaign.
Jaden Wallace split time at quarterback last season, but he still led the team in passing despite playing in just four games.
Desmond Mack and Kendall Hope lead the battle for the running back position while Adreyan Kirkpatrick is the leading returning receiver.
The defense will be mostly filled with newcomers, but that may be good for a unit looking to put last year’s memory far behind them.
Projected Order of Finish
Weddington 10-1; 7-0
CLT Catholic 9-1; 6-1
Monroe 7-4; 3-4
Sun Valley 6-5; 4-3
Marvin Ridge 5-6; 4-3
Piedmont 3-8; 2-5
Parkwood 3-8, 1-6
Cuthbertson 2-7; 1-6
The Cougars dropped match-ups with Country Day – the longstanding Cook Cup won’t be played for the first time in 32 seasons – and Charlotte Christian – a series that had become the best public-private rivalry in the state – for a road game in Maryland and a home game against Louisiana’s Archbishop Rummel.
I don’t like that and I wish it were different, but no matter who lines up opposite the Cougars in 2019 opponents will have plenty of problems to deal with.
Lead back Lamagea McDowell is a big, strong ball carrier with excellent speed. He’s a load to bring down and seems to get better as the game wears on. Paul Neel spells him, but is more than just an afterthought after he ran for over 700 yards and 11 touchdowns and became one of the Cougars best receivers.
Elite left tackle Malik McGowan anchors a stout offensive line, and the Cougars will mix in some passes to keep teams honest.
The linebackers are as good as anyone’s with Billy Brewer, Jacob Schachte, Ty Foley and Liam Barbee. Safety Jack Gustafson is another guy to keep an eye on after picking off four passes last year.
The Cougars are 73-5 in coach Mike Brodowicz’s five seasons at the helm, so the guy can certainly coach. And, with three titles in the past four seasons and two in a row they are the king of the mountain until someone can push them off.