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Wertz: Rocky River hopes to continue its climb vs. Richmond Senior

Langston Wertz Jr.
Langston Wertz Jr. writes about high schoool sports for The Charlotte Observer and charlotteobserver.com.

Four teams – Charlotte Christian, Hough, Mallard Creek and Sun Valley – kicked off the 2014 season Thursday at Memorial Stadium. Most of the other area teams kick off Friday night. A look at some storylines:

• Rocky River was 11-3 last year and beat Butler to win the Southwestern 4A Conference title. The Ravens return 12 starters, 25 lettermen and open Friday at home with state power Richmond Senior. This is Rocky River’s fifth season. After going 3-18 the first two years, the Ravens are 18-8 the past two and made an N.C. 4AA quarterfinal appearance last year.

“We jumped ahead of schedule,” coach Jason Fowler said. “We did a little better last year than I thought and now we gotta see if we can be on the level with the big boys.”

Friday is a great test. Richmond has adopted a more pass-first system than Raiders teams of the past under sophomore QB Luke Hoggard, son of coach Paul Hoggard. Beat Richmond and the Ravens are ready for a true state title run.

• Davidson Day’s new QB is 6-foot Hough transfer Anthony DiGioia. He is replacing All-American Will Grier, now at Florida. Coach Chad Grier said DiGioia has never taken a varsity snap. Davidson Day, always a pass-first team, has won three straight private school state titles and faces N.C. 1A power Albemarle at home Friday. Albemarle DL Lee Autry, a Wake Forest recruit, will try to make DiGioia’s debut hard.

Grier’s team is also struggling with numbers. After having 39 players in 2013, Davidson Day is down to 23 now. Grier said academic expectations and cost of tuition prevented some kids from enrolling. He said the school graduated seven seniors and lost 10 players to transfer since January. “That killed our depth,” he said. “Some of these guys will start at other places.”

Grier feels that 10 of his players will play in college, but some of them are sophomores. “We can put 11 on the field that can play at a high level,” he said. “We just don’t have any depth.”

• West Mecklenburg debuts its new stadium Friday against Vance, which is debuting new coach Aaron Brand. Brand is an exciting offensive mind, who coached explosive offenses at Mallard Creek, Independence and West Charlotte. He’ll have no shortage of athletes at Vance, which could become a power.

• Longtime S.C. power Summerville plays at Providence Friday night, and Summerville coach John McKissick is the nation’s all-time winningest high school football coach (613 wins, 10 state titles, 63 seasons). There is talk that this could be his final season and his Green Wave team is expected to a be a state title contender, led by 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive lineman Zack Bailey, a South Carolina commit.

• Big night at Olympic, debuting new coach Keith Wilkes and a brand new stadium being named for longtime coach and athletics director Dave Johnson. Former CMS athletics director Vicki Hamilton and former Myers Park AD Greg Clewis will help Johnson with the pre-game coin toss. Johnson worked at Olympic for 41 years and still does PA for home games. “Dave Johnson Stadium” feels appropriate. Good award for a good man.

• I’ve been hearing all summer from South Mecklenburg fans that this was a “New South” this year. The Sabres have impressed coaches in the preseason, but South Meck hasn’t had a winning season since 2010 and just two since 1997. Probably the best way to start a season of change is to beat a team like Independence, which believes it’s ready to get back to its state championship level of 2000-08.

• Few teams in the area have as difficult a schedule as Monroe’s Sun Valley High. The Spartans will play six of their first seven games on the road. The 3A team will face four 4A teams in their first five games, and then play N.C. 2AA state finalist Monroe in their sixth. For the (regular) season, Sun Valley has just four of 11 games at home.

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