High School Sports

Why a dominant Cardinal Gibbons football team is ‘excited about the challenge’ of 2019

Cardinal Gibbons head coach Steven Wright congratulates Jacob Gill (5) after his touchdown. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Cleveland Rams met in a non-conference football game in Raleigh, N.C. on September 7, 2018.
Cardinal Gibbons head coach Steven Wright congratulates Jacob Gill (5) after his touchdown. The Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders and the Cleveland Rams met in a non-conference football game in Raleigh, N.C. on September 7, 2018. newsobserver.com

When you’re one of the best football programs, other teams want to knock you from your spot.

Cardinal Gibbons has been in that position a few times, with back-to-back conference titles and an overall combined record of 21-3 the past two seasons, including a combined 12-0 record in league play. The Crusaders have established dominance in the Cap-7 4A conference. But being at the top means each game becomes a challenge to stay at the top.

Cardinal Gibbons coach Steven Wright will take that challenge.

“I’ve been on both ends of that,” Wright told the N&O on Tuesday. “It’s definitely more satisfying being where we are right now as a program. There are other issues that you deal with, but those are issues I would much rather deal with than being in the basement of a conference.”

The Crusaders haven’t been at the bottom of the conference since Wright took over before the 2011 season. Since then, Cardinal Gibbons has gone 77-23 and has only lost two or more conference games three times. Since moving to the 4A classification in 2015, the Crusaders have lost just three league games. Last year they blitzed through the Cap-7, outscoring their opponents 280-52, averaging 46 points per game, with an average winning margin of 38 points.

For now, the Cap-7 is Cardinal Gibbons’ to lose.

As the 2019 season approaches, Wright wants his team to remember that 2018 and its perfect conference record is behind them. Wright said he talked to his team about “turning the page” when they met for the first time in January.

“They’ve done a good job of not letting the previous seasons success impact what they need to do to push that success forward for the upcoming season,” Wright said. “We’re real intentional about reminding the guys the 2018 season is over. Our guys have done a good job refocusing themselves.”

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Wright will enter the 2019 season having to replace quarterback Nick Frey, who is now at Colgate. Last year Frey threw for 3,084 yards and 35 scores and was the second leading rusher, finishing with 476 yards and eight scores on the ground. The quarterback duties next season fall to senior Andrew Harvey, who threw for two scores last year as a backup.

Wright says he is confident in Harvey and likes what he’s seen from him during the summer. What will make Harvey’s job easier is being surrounded by talented skill players like junior running back Ethan Hebb (619 rushing yards in 2018, 6 TDs) and junior wide receiver Jacob Gill (74 catches, 1,170 yards, 18 TDs), who is one of the top receivers in the state. Senior Jack Grazen and junior Brock Biestek will also line up in the backfield next to Harvey to take some pressure off the first-year starter.

Gill has added 15 pounds since the end of his sophomore year and Wright expects a big junior season from him.

“I think what you’re going to see is a little bit faster and more physical type of player,” Wright said. “He’s put a lot of time and work into the weight room and our offseason program. We’re excited.”

The Crusaders’ 2019 season starts out tough. After a scrimmage against Middle Creek on Aug. 17, they take on three-time 4AA state champion Wake Forest on Aug. 23, in a highly anticipated season opener. The Crusaders non-conference schedule also includes Durham Riverside, Richmond County, Heritage and Cleveland, who handed Cardinal Gibbons its only regular-season loss a year ago.

“We might have the toughest non-conference schedule in the state,” Wright said. “We need to do a better job of preparing with the end in mind. If our goal is to play deep into the postseason, we should look at scheduling some of those guys who are doing that very thing.”

Wright knows all eyes are on the Aug. 23 game against the Cougars, calling it a great early season test. Without a doubt a measuring stick to determine if they are ready to stay on top of the conference.

Cardinal Gibbons starts Cap-7 play on Sept. 27 at home against Leesville, a team many are picking to win the conference.

“It is a brutal first stretch,” Wright said. “But we are kind of excited to see how we handle that. I don’t think anyone would make the statement that we didn’t challenge ourselves early. The kids are excited about the challenge, they know what’s in front of them.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.