Cardinal Gibbons hungry to reclaim league crown

Aug. 17, 2014 @ 05:39 PM

For four years running Cardinal Gibbons wore a conference crown.

But that all changed last year when the Southern High School state championship juggernaut knocked the Crusaders off their perennial football perch.

“We’re hungry to get that title back,” said fourth-year coach Steven Wright, whose Crusader teams are 31-6. They were 9-4 last year, bowing out in the second round of the state playoffs, and 5-2 in 3A Big Eight Conference play.

“I think probably like just about every coach there’s some cautious optimism” Cardinal Gibbons could be in the title chase this year, Wright said, “depending how healthy we stay” and how quickly some younger players mature in their positions.

But he also understands that to be king of the hill in the Big Eight, which he calls  “a deep and dangerous conference,” requires extraordinary effort.

“I think you’d be foolish not to identify Southern Durham as defending state champions, defending conference champions,” as the preseason favorite to repeat, Wright said.

“They return a highly recruited Division I quarterback. They’ve got a Division I running back, and I think they’ve got a Division I wide receiver, not to mention some of the pieces they’ve got on defense,” said Wright.

“Orange has been consistently outstanding over the past years,” he said, “along with Northwood that returns almost their entire starting lineup both offensively and defensively.”

Chapel Hill is going to be “dramatically improved. I think their record is a little bit deceiving from last year. They lost four games in the fourth quarter against some good football teams,” he said.

“I would argue it’s the deepest and best 3A conference in the state,” Wright said.

“Usually a conference has got two or three potential heavyweights at the top of the conference, and then there’s usually a pretty steep drop-off,” he said. “To draw a comparison to the NCAA, you’ve got an SEC type of depth in our conference. Every week there is a threat within the conference.”

If the Big Eight conference were spread out in the playoffs, “you’re going to end up with this conference in the semifinals, and that’s no disrespect to anyone else, it’s just that this conference has that much talent in it” with both players and coaches, Wright said.

The Crusaders lost two key players from last year — quarterback Shawn Stankavage of Chapel Hill, who’s playing at Vanderbilt, and wide receiver Danté DiMaggio, who’s a preferred walk-on at North Carolina.

And one week from the opening kickoff, Wright still wasn’t sure who would be at quarterback. Juniors Logan Washle and Wesley Wagner were battling for the spot.

But Wright returns nine of 11 defensive starters, including 5-10, 210-pound junior Will Graham of Durham.

“He’s going to be an outstanding defensive lineman for us,” Wright said. He’s a young man who’s been in our program for three years and … will help lead the charge up front.”

Wright said 5-10, 205-pound senior middle linebacker Steven Scott will lead the defense. All-conference linebacker Chris Karazin, a 6-0, 195-pound senior, returns. Steven Albright, a 6-2, 193-pound senior honorable mention all-conference safety who’s got a couple of college scholarship offers, is back.

The Crusaders also return some standout offensive players at key positions, including all-conference senior Earl Gill, a 5-9, 175-pound wide receiver with more than 1,000 yards receiving last year. He was named to this year’s preseason all-state team.

Senior Brandon Loy, a 6-0, 175-pound returning all-conference kicker, will be back at wide receiver, where he was all-conference honorable mention. He will be joined at wideout by 6-1, 170-pound senior James Sriraman. Also returning is senior David Smith, a 5-10, 198-pound running back who Wright says is “a guy we certainly look to lean on.”

A pair of returning seniors will anchor the offensive line – 6-2, 290-pound Bruce Dalton, and 5-10, 195-pound Sean Matthews.