Returning four starters from a team that made a run to the third round of the N.C. 4A playoffs, Vance High’s girls basketball team has one goal this season: to win it all.
Vance starts out No. 1 for the second straight season in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll. The Cougars are one of several area teams equipped to make a run at a state championship.
No Mecklenburg County team has won an NCHSAA 4A state championship since Myers Park in 2015.
Here’s a look at this year’s top teams with last season’s records.
Girls basketball preseason Sweet 16
No. 1 – Vance Cougars (4A) – 26-3 – The Cougars return four starters -- Leah Barringer, Tanajah Hayes, Keyonna Morgan and Amaya Moreland -- from a 26-win team. Their motto is “1 team, 1 dream,” which means they’re starting the season with the goal of winning a 4A state championship, according to coach Donnell Rhyne.
No. 2 – Butler Bulldogs (4A) – 28-3 – The defending Southwestern 4A champions are loaded with talent that includes the senior trio of Micahla Funderburk, Michaela Lane and Payton Smith, who are returning to a team that won 28 games and advanced to the 4A state semifinals.
No. 3 – Cuthbertson Cavaliers (3A) – 29-4 The Cavaliers return the core of a 3A state semifinalist team that won 29 games with junior Maddie Dillinger (14 ppg) back to lead a veteran team.
No. 4 – Mallard Creek Mavericks (4A) – 22-6 – The Mavericks have averaged 25 wins per season over the past four years. They have another strong team led by senior guard Nevaeh Brown, a Wake Forest recruit, junior Kennedy Simpson and freshman Samyha Suffren.
No. 5 – Freedom Patriots (3A) – 30-2 – The Patriots return three starters from their 30-win 3A state semifinalist team. Senior guard Blaikley Crooks (15) and transfers Jayda Glass (Eastern Guilford), Danisha Hemphill (Morganton Patton) and Josie Hise (East Burke) will lead this year.
No. 6 – Carson Cougars (3A) – 27-3 – The Cougars have four starters back from a team that won 27 games. They’ll be led by their all-conference backcourt, seniors Maci Cooper (9 ppg), Colbie Perry (12 ppg) and Ellie Wilhelm (8 ppg).
No. 7 – Hickory Ridge Ragin’ Bulls (3A) – 24-5 - The Ragin’ Bulls return three starters from a 24-win team, led by their backcourt, juniors Kennedy Calhoun (13 ppg) and Jadah Spears (10 ppg).
No. 8 – Newton Conover Red Devils (2A) – 25-5 – The Red Devils have one of state’s most dominant players in 6-3 senior center and Rutgers commit, Chyna Cornwell (28 ppg, 21 rpg).
No. 9 – Providence Day Chargers (NCISAA 4A) – 19-12 – The Chargers return their entire starting lineup from a NCISAA 4A state semifinalist team with all-state seniors Andi Levitz (10 ppg) and Morgan Kelson (12 ppg) among the returnees.
No. 10 – Davidson Day Patriots (NCISAA 2A) – 21- 5 – The defending NCISAA 2A state champions have one of the most prolific shooters in the state in junior Mallorie Haines (23 ppg, Davidson commit).
No. 11 – East Burke Cavaliers (2A) – 24-6 – The Cavaliers will be the class of the Northwest Foothills’ 2A again led by seniors Riley Haas (8 ppg, 6 rpg), Graleigh Hildebran and Ashlyn Stillwell.
No. 12 – Central Cabarrus Vikings (3A) - 17-9 - The Vikings will look to the all-conference trio of seniors in Ja’el Miller (15 ppg), Aniyah Tate (16 ppg, 10 rpg) and Demi Case to defend their league title.
No. 13 – Providence Panthers (4A) – 20-6 – Junior point guard Nyla McGill (13 ppg, 8 apg, 7 rpg) returns to a team hoping to improve on the best season in school history.
No. 14 – Charlotte Catholic Cougars (3A) – 22-6 - The Cougars get back four starters from a 22-win team. Senior guard and Appalachian State commit Dane Bertolina (16 ppg, 4 spg) will headline.
No. 15 – Clover Blue Eagles (S.C. Region III, AAAAA) – 20-8 – The Blue Eagles return four starters from a 20-win team, led by all-state junior guard Aylesha Wade (16 points per game).
No. 16 – Ardrey Kell Knights (4A) – 25-4 – The Knights have averaged 25 wins per season over the past four years and have another talented team led by UNC Wilmington recruit Evan Miller.
Also receiving consideration: Gastonia Ashbrook (3A, 16-9); Cannon School (IND, 15-8); Independence (4A, 10-15); Myers Park (4A, 12-15); Rocky River (4A, 19-5); South Mecklenburg (4A, 18-9).