High School Sports

Surprises, state champs, stars? 10 burning questions as prep football opens Thursday.

High school football practice officially begins Thursday, and believe it or not, the 2019 season kicks off in a little more than a week.

Here are the Observer’s annual 10 burning questions heading into the season:

1. Is this the year Mecklenburg County gets back to winning 4AA state championships?

In 2002, the N.C. High School Athletic Association went to a subdivided state championship in football, meaning it named two champions in each of its four classifications. The larger schools and smaller schools within a class were separated into, for example, 4AA and 4A. From 2002-2015, Mecklenburg County won 11 of the 14 state championships in 4AA, the largest classification. But the county hasn’t produced any 4AA champions since 2015. Mallard Creek and Vance, I-MECK conference mates, have lost in the past two 4AA finals.

Will that change this year?

Three-time 4AA state champion Wake Forest looks ready to try to four-peat, and the western side of the playoff bracket, where the Mecklenburg County teams play, is stacked again. There’ll be plenty of Mecklenburg contenders like Myers Park, Mallard Creek, Vance and Butler. But the problem is those teams wear each other out trying to reach the finals.

Still, from where we sit now 2019 looks like the year a Charlotte-area team (finally) hoists a trophy again.

2. Has the Southern Carolinas 3A overtaken the I-MECK 4A as the best conference in North Carolina?

Well, it’s not often that one conference produces two state champions in the same season. Weddington (3AA) and Charlotte Catholic (3A) both won titles last season, and Catholic has won back-to-back 3A crowns. That three state titles for the Southern Carolina in two years. .

The I-MECK 4A, though, is still the better conference. It’s deeper and more talented overall, annually producing multiple nationally ranked teams and major college recruits. In the past six seasons, the I-MECK produced three N.C. 4AA state champions and five N.C. 4AA state finalists. Twice in those six years, two conference teams played in the 4AA state semifinals. Also, Vance reached the 4A semifinals in 2014 and 2017.

3. What teams could make big jumps this season?

Ardrey Kell was 0-5 to start the season in 2018 but finished by winning five of seven games. New coach Greg Jachym returns 15 starters, including UNC recruit Cedric Gray at wide receiver.

Harding won the 2017 N.C. 4A state championship, lost its coach (Sam Greiner left for Hickory Ridge in Harrisburg) and fell to 2-9 last season. New coach Van Smith, who was 2-2 in the final month of the 2018 season, returns 10 starters, 25 lettermen and major D1 talent like DB Maleik Faust. Harding looks like a threat to win the SoMECK conference.

Like Ardrey Kell, Providence overcame a tough start (1-5) with a strong finish (5-1). New coach Wes Ward has 13 starters, 24 lettermen coming back, including an veteran offensive line that returns four starters.

4. It sounds like there’s a lot of new coaches. Is that right?

Absolutely. In what seems to have become a trend, there are tons of new faces. Six of the seven head coaches in Charlotte’s SoMECK 7 conference are new, if you include Harding’s Smith, who was named interim at the tail end of the 2018 season. Only Berry High’s Andrew Howard began the 2018 season at his current school.

Overall, nearly 20 percent of the 137 schools in the Observer’s coverage area have new head football coaches. (Full list below.)

5. Will Mecklenburg’s private schools remain dominant??

Charlotte Christian won the N.C. Independent Schools Division I championship last season, and Charlotte Country Day won in Division II.

Christian, which has won 21 straight games and the past two state championships, returns 11 starters but suffered several key losses, including all-state QB Garrett Shrader. The Knights are 31-3 the past three seasons and have 35 lettermen back who are used to winning. But capturing the Big South conference this year won’t be a certainty.

Country Day (14 starters, 19 lettermen), Charlotte Latin (11 starters, 16 lettermen) and Providence Day (17 starters, 22 lettermen) are all experienced. The conference title race — and the state championship chase — is wide open. And in the end, we think Mecklenburg teams will win D1 and DII titles again.

6. What are some key dates to mark down?

The season kicks off Aug. 10 when the Carolina Crusaders play the Cabarrus Stallions at York High. Aug. 10 is also the first scrimmage date for public school teams. Most schools begin the season on Friday, Aug. 23.

The private schools playoffs begin Nov. 1 with state finals on Nov. 8 and 15. The public school playoffs begin Nov. 15 with state finals coming Dec. 14.

7. Did you say Carolina Crusaders? Who are they?

We have some new teams:

In Fort Mill, Catawba Ridge High opens on a 400,000 square foot campus. It will serve 850 students in grade 9-11 this school year. In 2020-21, it will have grades 9-12. Former Myers Park basketball coach and athletics director Rick Lewis will be AD.

In Rock Hill, a new charter school, Legion Collegiate, opens. The head football coach is Strait Herron, who won multiple state championships at nearby South Pointe High.

Two Concord schools — Cannon and First Assembly — have combined to form one team, the Cabarrus Warriors. Facing similar low numbers, two Charlotte schools have done the same: Victory Christian and Northside Christian will now become the VC/NC Royals.

The Carolina Crusaders? They’re an independent home school team out of Rock Hill.

8. Three breakout stars?

Kiantai Degree, Bessemer City, 6-3, 230, DL, Sr: Degree has put on 15 pounds and grown an inch after being named Southern Piedmont 1A defensive player of the year in 2018. He had 104 tackles, nine sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss last season. Now he’s bigger and stronger.

Jesiah Davis, Providence Day, 6-2, 170, WR, Jr.: Another major college recruit brewing at a school known for producing them. Davis will be expected to step in for All-American Porter Rooks who transferred to Myers Park. Davis will catch passes from two-time, all-state pick Cody Cater.

Lamagea McDowell, Charlotte Catholic, 6-2, 230, RB, Sr.: A solid contributor on back-to-back state title teams, McDowell will be a featured player this season. He’s one of seven offensive starters back from a 15-1 team.

9. When can we expect the Sweet 16?

The Observer’s preseason coverage will continue over the next two weeks with county previews, all-county preseason teams, the annual Carolinas Top 50 recruits and more. Expect the preseason Sweet 16 the week of the opening kickoff for public school teams, prior to Aug. 23.

10. OK, what are three can’t-miss games early on?

Two big ones the first week: state championship contenders Hough and Butler meet at the Matthews Sportsplex on Aug. 22. On Aug. 23, nationally ranked Mallard Creek visits nationally ranked Dutch Fork in a game that was canceled last season due to storms.

For recruiting nuts, Charlotte Country Day hosts Hammond School from Columbia, S.C., on Sept. 6. Hammond defensive end Jordan Burch is the No. 1 overall player in the nation in the class of 2020.

You can find preseason scrimmage schedules here, and complete regular-season schedules here.

Observer-area fresh faces

Here are high schools in the Observer’s coverage zone that had high school football head coaching changes.

SchoolOld CoachNew Coach
Ardrey KellKyle BreyGreg Jachym
China Grove CarsonJoe PinyanDaniel Crosby
East GastonSean JoyceJason Lippard
Fort Mill Catawba Ridge (SC)none*Zac Lendyak
Great Falls (SC)Scotty SteenTom Butler
Hickory GroveMike PondoLynn Coble
Hickory RidgeSam GreinerJupiter Wilson
Lake Norman CharterMark SteeleBob McKay
Lancaster (SC)Bobby CollinsMarcus Surratt
Legion Collegiatenone*Strait Herron
Lenoir HibritenClay LewisSam Mackey
LincolntonLedford GibsonJoe Glass
Marion McDowellAndy MorganDarrell Brewer
Monroe Central AcademyTony ByrumDrew Hackett
Newton FoardDerrick MinorRyan Gettys
OlympicJason FowlerBrandon Thompson
Pine Lake PrepBrett HayfordAustin Trotter
Rock Hill Northwestern (SC)James MartinPage Wofford
Rock Hill South PointeStrait HerronDeVonte Holloman
ShelbyLance WareMike Wilbanks
South MecklenburgRocky WhiteJoe Evans
Unionville PiedmontLuke HyattJon Castador
VanceAaron BrandGlenwood Ferebee
Waxhaw CuthbertsonDavid JohnsonTrey Kavanaugh
West CaldwellDeVore HolmanMike Biggerstaff
West LincolnTom SainDarren Ponder
West MecklenburgJarvis DavisNick Mata
YorkBobby CarrollDean Boyd

*Fort Mill’s Catawba Ridge and Rock Hill’s Legion Collegiate are new schools