Thursday, November 24, 2011

Friday's battle will come down to basics

Happy Thanksgiving!

I got to bed around 2 a.m. (about my normal time) after making four pumpkin pies and putting the turkey in a bag of brine solution for an overnight bath. The pumpkin pies were made from one of the pumpkins my son got on his preschool, pre-Halloween field trip to a local farm. It's the first time I've ever made pumpkin from a real pumpkin but I figured it was time to get back to basics.

Keeping that mind, that's what I think Friday's N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-AA Eastern football championship will come down to. Defending state champion Northern Guilford conveys an image of flash and dash with speed as a major component of its spread offense. But the truth is, the Nighthawks will, if not pound you to death, certainly slash and slice you up behind the capable of legs of junior running back TJ Logan and senior quarterback Daniel Downing.

When Northern Guilford beat Hunt 28-20 in the 2010 3-AA Eastern final, the Nighthawks passing game was as much of a reason as their ground attack. But this season the Nighthawks have run for an average of 264 yards per game and passed for just 70.6 yards per outing. Contrast that to Hunt's 233.4 per-game rushing average and 70.4 passing average and you see two teams who are very much alike.

In speaking with my contacts in Greensboro, I've learned the perception of the 2011 Nighthawks is they might not be as good as last year. That translates into Northern Guilford has less talent; understandable since half its 2010 starting quarterback duo, Rocco Scarfone, is at East Carolina while Shrine Bowl receiver Maurice Harris plays for California.

That assertion could be made about Hunt, which lost Tyrell Vinson, Caleb Driver, Spencer Miller and a host of other members of the class of 2011. But here's the thing: The Warriors lost a considerable amount of talent but, in my opinion, they are a better team this year. They've showed that with 13 straight wins that included a few downright Houdini-like escapes. That's a sign of a mature team who understands there are endless possibilities when figuring out a way to win.

So if Hunt can lose talent but end up better, who's to say Northern Guilford isn't in the same boat? After all, the Nighthawks have had an impressive 12-game winning streak including last week's 35-6 destruction of previously unbeaten and host Fayetteville Byrd.

If these two teams are as closely matched as I think (and they were pretty close last year), then this is what's going to happen. Friday's outcome is going to come down to the basics: taking care of the football, limiting penalties and mental blunders and making tackles. Not tackles 10-15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage but hit-'em-at-the-line-and-wrap-'em-up tackles.

Hunt's been good enough to overcome its mistakes in recent games but the Warriors better hope that if they do make mistakes, and I mostly mean turnovers and penalties, they make them when they least hurt. Ditto that for Northern Guilford.

I realize just about everything I've just typed here has a major "Duh!" factor. Those components I listed are the keys to just about any game for any football team. But more than anything else, I believe Friday's game won't come down to speed, experience, who wants it more, destiny or any of countless other reasons one can find. It's this simple: Don't screw up and make tackles.

Can't get any more basic than that. Now, does anyone know how to make turkey gravy?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Seems like old times in the 3-AA final four

The N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-AA final four is set and it's 2010 all over again. Northern Guilford will travel east to face Hunt in the Eastern final while Shelby Crest heads over to Charlotte Catholic in the Western final.

Last season the lower seeds — Northern Guilford and Crest — prevailed and played a memorable state final under the lights in Raleigh's Carter-Finley Stadium. The Nighthawks won 21-20 after Crest's Shine Bowl kicker Trever Austin missed a potential game-tying extra point with seconds to play — the only one Austin missed all season.

In the 2010 semifinals, Mideast fifth-seeded Northern Guilford built a 28-7 halftime lead at East top-seeded Hunt then held on for a 28-20 win while Crest, the West No. 3, blasted Midwest No. 2 Charlotte Catholic 31-10.

Right now it's hard to say how Friday (which will be Black Friday for two teams) is going to turn out but I have to think Catholic and Northern Guilford are the early favorites. The winners will meet in the 3-AA championship game Friday (that's right, Friday), Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in UNC's Kenan Stadium.
On a side note, the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference still has its top two teams alive as Kinston slipped past Bunn 47-46 in overtime in the 2-AA East final Friday night while two-time defending 2-A champion Tarboro eked by Edenton Holmes 28-26 in the 2-A East final. The EPC champion Vikings of Kinston host perennial power Reidsville on Friday while the Vikings of Tarboro visit South Columbus.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Should private schools be in the NCHSAA?

Friday night Hunt will host Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons in the first meeting on the gridiron between the schools. It will also be the third round of N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-AA playoffs.

Gibbons just joined the NCHSAA in 2005 after being admitted as a private school. Previously, Gibbons was a member of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association. Two other private schools, Charlotte Catholic and Kernersville Bishop McGuiness, are NCHSAA members and have done quite well, like Gibbons.

Which begs the seasonal question: Is it fair for private schools, with no district boundaries, to compete against public schools? I've heard plenty of public school coaches say it's not and I'm split on the issue. It's not a matter of recruiting, which is forbidden by the NCHSAA and the NCISAA but happens within both organizations. I do think not having district boundaries gives private schools an edge. Of course, private school students have to pay to attend those schools since scholarships — at least full ones — are also prohibited.

Here's a good solution that has been advocated for some time: Let the private schools join the NCHSAA but put them all in the 4-A classification. After all, a student population drawn from a specific area isn't quite the same as one drawn from one without boundaries. Besides, given the success enjoyed by Gibbons, Charlotte Catholic and McGuiness, I'm sure all three could compete and succeed at the 4-A level.

And as an aside to that, I'd like to see private schools and public schools play each other more consistently, especially here in Wilson where it's non-existent.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Big week ahead for both sets of unbeaten Warriors

Hunt's thrilling triple-overtime, come-from-behind 37-31 defeat of Nash Central in Friday's N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-AA football playoffs put it where no Warriors edition has ever been: 12-0.

Hunt will shoot for lucky 13 next Friday against Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons, which knocked off Triton 25-15 in the second round. Curiously, the Hunt boys soccer team may face Cardinal Gibbons this week as well. If the Warriors win at Jacksonville on Saturday night and Gibbons gets past Northern Guilford, the Crusaders will host the Warriors, also unbeaten, in the 3-A Eastern final, probably Wednesday. Of course, beating Jacksonville would be a tall order for Hunt, which has been ousted by the Cardinals the last five seasons.

Another football victory for Hunt will send the Warriors back to the 3-AA Eastern final, which they lost to Northern Guilford 28-20 last season. The defending 3-AA champion Nighthawks visit unbeaten Fayetteville Douglas Byrd in the Mideast bracket final Friday. Twenty-eight years ago, the Warriors, with current head coach Randy Raper in his second season as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator Stevie Hinnant as a Skoal-dipping, 150-pound middle linebacker, hosted Byrd in the 4-A Eastern final the day after Thanksgiving. Byrd, coached by former Fike coach Bob Paroli and with such future NFL players as Donnell Woolford and Brad Edwards, spotted the Warriors seven points before going onto a 35-14 win.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to build a basketball arena in 8 days

Here's a really cool time-lapse video of the stands and basketball court being constructed on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, where later today top-ranked North Carolina and Michigan State will tip off the season in San Diego.

The video was shot by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Lowell Whitman.

We've got some local folks at the game today and next week I hope to have a story on their experiences at this unique event helping to celebrate Veterans Day.

If you know a vet, give him or her five for helping keep us alive.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

High school football playoffs are here and so are my predictions

The high school football playoffs are here and I've decided it's time to revive my tradition of explaining my picks as seen in the weekly Football Forecast in The Wilson Times. Wait a minute ... is it still a tradition if it takes a year-long break? Ah, never mind, I'm here now, right?

West Brunswick at Hunt: The Warriors went 10-0 in the regular season and this is not the time for their first loss. The Trojans have the only losing record in the East bracket, or pod if you will, and shouldn't provide much resistance to the Warriors, who are hungry to follow last year's 3-AA Eastern final appearance. That path will be much harder this time around for Hunt, which will see either Nash Central or Gray's Creek next week in Warrior Stadium. Nash Central gave Hunt all it could handle two weeks ago and a second trip to Wilson might prove fruitful for the Bulldogs. Gray's Creek is also formidable, losing just once and by only six points to unbeaten Douglas Byrd. Hunt 38, West Craven 12

Interesting sidenote to a potential Hunt-Gray's Creek matchup: You think Gray's Creek fans will remind Hunt head coach Randy Raper of his peacemaking role in the girls soccer fight in the playoffs a few years ago?

Fike at West Carteret: The Golden Demons, by virtue of record and seeding, are considered the underdogs here. But let's face it, the Patriots are sputtering down the stretch and the reason for that is they finally played some good teams. West Carteret's first five games were against opposition with a combined 21-32 record. The Golden Demons, on the other hand, faced teams in their first five games that went 39-13, including unbeaten Jacksonville Northside and Hunt. Fike 27, West Carteret 16

Southern Nash at Triton: Wow! What a powerhouse first-round matchup. The Firebirds are arguably two plays from being 9-1, just like the Hawks, who won the 3-A Eastern Carolina Conference title. Talk about grind-it-out, smashmouth football, these teams should put on a trench war that will, as these affairs always do, come down to who makes the fewest mistakes. Because the Firebirds have shown a tendency to hurt themselves in that regard, I've got to take Triton — but not by much. Triton 28, Southern Nash 26

SW Edgecombe at Kinston: Cougars head coach Raymond Cobb credits his team's second-half showing in its 40-12 loss at home to Kinston during the regular season as the impetus for the Cougars' turnaround from an 0-4 start, including the loss to the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference Vikings. Clearly, this isn't the same SWE team Kinston saw in mid-September and while I won't be surprised to hear Coach Cobb calling me Friday night to report a winning score, I can't, in good faith, go against the top seed playing at home in the first round. Especially when said No. 1 seed has C.J. Bradshaw at quarterback. The Cougars keep it interesting for a spell but Kinston's got too much of everything. And that's just enough. No miracle for SouthWest. Kinston 40, SW Edgecombe 27

North Johnston at Roanoke Rapids: These two teams got in a shootout in the Roanoke Valley a few weeks ago and the Yellow Jackets made out with a 55-40 win after building a big lead courtesy of Panthers turnovers. A road win is certainly within NoJo's capability but I'm sticking with recent tradition, which says when North Johnston and Roanoke Rapids play football, the Jackets win. Roanoke Rapids 34, North Johnston 20

Greene Central at Jacksonville Northside: Rams coach Kenneth Grantham and Monarchs mentor Bob Eason are buddies, played football together at Greene Central, went to ECU together. But don't expect Eason to show much sentimentality other than to not run up the score. Had the Rams not had personnel issues during the season, they might be 7-3 or 8-2 and hosting a game instead of 5-5 at the No. 1 seed. But that's not where they are and Friday probably won't be pleasant for Greene Central. Northside 52, Greene Central 14

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hunt's high-scoring O'Brien commits to UNC

NOTE: Corrected version with accurate season goals total.

Hunt forward Eric O'Brien has made a verbal commitment to the University of North Carolina men's soccer program. Because Eric is just a junior, he hasn't been officially offered by UNC but he's decided he wants to be a Tar Heel, and become possibly the first Wilson County player to sign a soccer scholarship from Carolina.

O'Brien currently has 55 goals on the season, which isn't what I reported earlier today. One of the four goals O'Brien was credited with in Tuesday's 9-1 playoff win against Charles B. Aycock was actually put in the net by junior Craig Edwards.

Sooo, the 55 goals still has him ninth on the single-season scoring list of N.C. High School Athletic Association players. O'Brien probably has no chance to catch Michael Richardson, who scored 92 goals for Surry Central in 2002, a year after finding the net 87 times. But the third-highest total of 66, belonging to Eastern Alamance's Matt Smith in 2003, is reachable. Certainly if the Warriors, who will play West Craven at home in the second round of the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs Thursday night, play at least three more games (which would match their furthest playoff foray), O'Brien should be able to land in the top five. He would need nine goals to do that.

By my count, Hunt has 152 goals this season, leaving the Warriors eight goals shy of the 10th-highest single-season total in NCHSAA history, done in 2002 by, of course, Surry Central.