University City

This season will show if Vance is the real deal

Vance is drawing lots of attention this off-season, and for good reason. The Cougars have 12 starters back from last year and are coming off an 11-4 season that saw them win seven games in a row before falling to Butler in the state semifinals.

As the team's confidence grew, so did the excitement for a program that has never been one of the elite schools in its conference, much less in Charlotte.

That could change this year.

The Cougars' closest rival, Mallard Creek, recently was ranked No. 49 in the country by prep website, but it is Vance that could have the last say when the teams meet Sept. 30.

The Mavericks will be looking for payback, as they have spent the whole summer with the memory of a 10-7 playoff loss to Vance last year.

Leading the Cougars offense is quarterback Jalen Latter, who takes over after starting as a freshman in 2009 but losing that job after being injured last year. Latter and the Cougars have lost wide receivers Mike Neal, Ryan Stewart and Calvin Hunter to graduation, but there still is talent on both sides of the ball.

"There are a lot of weapons and a lot more athletes on this team," said Latter. "I am looking for a big year from my running back (Larenz Bryant), and I think we have some good receivers who are ready to contribute."

Defensively, the Cougars will be good, especially against the pass, but the key will be Bryant.

Bryant, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound all-purpose back, has breakaway speed and the body to run over defenders. He will be counted on to ease Latter back into his starting role and lessen the effects of losing three receivers.

How well Bryant plays will go a long way toward determining if the hype the Cougars are getting is justified.

"He's special," head coach Phil Culiceto said. "You can build a team around Larenz Bryant."

Bryant ran for 1,497 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore and will look to add to that total this year.

On defense, as a linebacker, Bryant had 56 tackles, 16 for a loss, and two interceptions, but it is his speed and power as a ball carrier that will most worry opposing defenses.

Bryant has been getting plenty of attention from college coaches and already has some major college interest. Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, N.C. State and Duke are among those interested, and South Carolina and Illinois already have offered him scholarships.

Last year was a great season for the Cougars, but this year could be better. They have experience and confidence and are looking to build on one of the best finishes in school history.

And they have Bryant, who could put them in contention to win the conference as one of the area's best teams.

The games begin Friday, when the Cougars take on Phillip O. Berry, an 11-3 team last year that is considered one of the better teams in the state.

The Cougars will see where they stand as a team, but they need Bryant to have a huge year if they are looking to challenge Mallard Creek and be a real contender for a state title.