Last December, Charlotte Catholic won the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state football championship. When the Cougars begin summer workouts this month, 15 players who started on that team will be on the field.
So if you're doing a way-too-early version of the Observer's Sweet 16 football poll, is there anybody else to install at No. 1? At least right now, it appears the Cougars have the top team in the area.
Mike Brodowicz begins his fifth season as Catholic's coach. In his first four, he record is 58-4 with two undefeated state championship teams. With the talent returning, the Cougars could add, mightily, to his resume. And he's adding 6-foot-2, 255-pound lineman Nick King, who sat out his junior season after transferring from Providence. King has scholarship offers from Charlotte and Richmond.
"We're very excited about the season," said Brodowicz, who has coached at the school for 15 years, 10 as an assistant. "I started 10 10th-graders in the state championship that I knew would come back. We're built for what we do. I tell people that I think this is the best football team we've had coming back since I've been at Charlotte Catholic."
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The way-too-early Observer Sweet 16 poll
No. 1 Charlotte Catholic (16-0 in 2017): 15 starters return from unbeaten state champion, including running backs Michael Neel (1,300 yards total offense in '17) and Lameague McDowell (1,000-plus total yards, 18 TDs). The offensive line, led by Billy Hambrook and Malik McGovern, is big and experienced. On defense, eight starters return, including defensive end Kevin Coss, who had 15 sacks. A year ago, Catholic allowed 9.6 points per game. Good luck scoring on the Cougars this season.
No. 2 Mallard Creek (14-1): The Mavericks had a young team that had 19 new starters and still reached the N.C. 4AA state championship game. Coach Mike Palmieri said he's had a school-record 80 players in preseason workouts and returns eight senior starters, four on offense and four on defense. Junior running back Trent Simpson has scholarship offers from Charlotte, North Carolina and South Carolina, among others. Senior lineman Parker Moorer has committed to Maryland.
No. 3 Rock Hill South Pointe (15-0): The nationally ranked Stallions won a fourth straight state championship but were hit hard by graduation losses. They will lean on returning stars Jaylen Mahoney, a 1,200-yard rusher, and Joe Ervin at cornerback. Mahoney committed to Wake Forest; Ervin to Coastal Carolina.
No. 4 Hough (11-4): The Huskies are a trendy preseason pick to unseat I-MECK conference power Mallard Creek and win a league title. Cornerback Mario Love (recent Duke offer) and promising sophomore running back Evan Pryor (recent Wake Forest offer) are drawing major-college attention, joining established stars such as receiver Nolan Groulx and cornerback Tyus Fields, two more major recruits. Hough is deep and talented.
No. 5 Charlotte Christian (10-1): The Knights are 20-3 the past two seasons with a state runner-up finish in 2016 and a state title in 2017. Christian returns 12 starters from a 10-1 team (2017), led by Mississippi State commit Garrett Shrader, a 6-foot-6 quarterback who threw for 2,302 yards and 24 touchdowns. On defense, eight starters return, including seniors J.T. Killen (134 tackles last year), Obi Egbuna (seven interceptions, two fumble recoveries last year) and Jeremiah Gray (Wake Forest commit).
No. 6 Lenoir Hibriten (16-0): The defending 2AA state champion returns 17 starters and 38 lettermen from a team that averaged 41 points per game. Among those returnees is all-state senior running back McKinley Witherspoon (2,057 yards rushing, 37 touchdowns last year). Seven defensive starters also return, including seniors Tyler Watson (seven sacks), Skylin Thomas (five interceptions) and Hayden Wake (seven sacks).
No. 7 Butler (8-3): Butler failed to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2004. This season, 14 starters return to change that. Those players include senior quarterback Christian Peters (1,321 yards passing last year), senior receiver Keyone Lesane (736 yards, 11 TDs) and junior running back Jamal Worthy (797 yards rushing, 10 TDs). The Bulldogs have a strong defense, led by Brandon Masone (115 tackles). The standard at Butler is to compete for championships (SW4A conference, state) and the Bulldogs look to prove they can be serious 4AA state contenders - again.
No. 8 Sun Valley (11-4): The Spartans reached the N.C. 3AA state semifinals for the first time last season, and they return one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Florida State recruit Sam Howell, who has has thrown for 10,715 yards and 109 touchdowns in his career.
No. 9 Harding (14-1): Harding won its first state championship since 1953 in December. The Rams return the nation’s No. 5 overall recruit in running back/linebacker Quavaris Crouch (3,283 yards rushing, 33 touchdowns last season). Coach Sam Greiner has moved to Harrisburg's Hickory Ridge High. New coach Robert Cross must find a quarterback to replace Braheam Murphy (Army), but he has Crouch and several other Division I recruits in the fold.
No. 10 Kings Mountain (12-2): The Mountaineers have won 40 games the past four seasons. They return 15 starters, including quarterback Kaylon Wade (2,200 yards passing) and running back Rikaylen Mack (1,898 yards rushing). After averaging 38 pointslast season, Kings Mountain could be more explosive in '18.
No. 11 Shelby (12-3): Shelby won four straight state championships from 2013-2016, going 59-7 in that span. The Golden Lions lost in the semifinals last season but look for another title run, led by a strong defense that includes Dorian Davis (James Madison commitment), Jack Hollifield and Jaylon Scott (N.C. State commitment).
No. 12 Myers Park (12-2): The Mustangs set a school record for wins in back-to-back seasons with 23 victories the past two years, which includes a share of their first conference title since 1983. Myers Park has several college prospects, including receiver Elijah Bowick, a Virginia Tech commit, and Division I recruit Muhsin Muhammad Jr. Quarterback Drake Maye, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore, has transferred from Hough. He is the son of former Independence High/UNC quarterback Mark Maye and brother of UNC basketball star Luke Maye.
No. 13 Maiden (11-1): The Blue Devils, who lost in the first round of the N.C. 2AA playoffs, return 13 starters. Senior receiver/QB/DB/KR Caleb McDaniel had more than 1,000 yards total and scored 13 TDs last season. Chris Morgan (116 tackles) leads an experienced defense. New quarterback Bain Sipe led the junior varsity to a 10-0 record.
No. 14 Vance (11-4): The third team from the I-MECK 4A in this poll (joining Hough and Mallard Creek), the Cougars will be built around senior quarterback Nigel Summerville, who threw for 2,981 yards and 30 touchdowns. It was his first year starting at any level of football.
No. 15 A.L. Brown (10-3): Coach Mike Newsome's team has 29 wins the past three seasons. This year, senior quarterback Jordan Medley returns to lead a high-powered offense (408 yards per game last year) that will look to lead the Wonders back to the South Piedmont conference title.
No. 16 Marvin Ridge (10-2): The Mavericks lost their final two games last season, so a veteran team should have motivation. The Mavericks will be led by seniors Sean Brown (eight receiving touchdowns last year), Carson Cross (seven interceptions), Will Smith (103 tackles), Jason Stricker (2017 Southern Carolina Conference specials teams’ player of the year) and Zach Yaggi (All-SCC offensive lineman).