Conference and state tournaments begin to take center stage this week as the fall sports schedule continues to wind down. There is plenty of action in football that will have an impact on conference standings and future playoff seedings. Two more cross country conference championships will be held this week and boys soccer enters the final two weeks of the season.
Girls golf, girls tennis and volleyball will hold regional and state playoffs this week. Previews of those events will be published separately from this column. Here is a look at the week ahead.
1) North Lincoln at Newton-Conover football (Friday)It’ll be strange to see former Newton-Conover head coach Nick Bazzle stroll into Gurley Stadium Friday wearing North Lincoln blue, but the former Red Devils coach will lead his team onto the field just as he did so many times during his tenure at Newton — with a squad that is a serious state contender. And, just like the old days, Newton-Conover is making noise as well.
This Friday, North Lincoln (7-1 overall) and Newton-Conover (6-2) come together as the final two South Fork 2A Conference unbeatens (4-0) with the winner taking over first place.
The fortunes of Bazzle and Newton-Conover changed after the 2011 season, when the coach left for Alexander Central after 13 seasons, which included three state championship games and the 2008 2A title. After a 112-56 record with the Red Devils, Bazzle and the Cougars’ teams didn’t gel in their four years together and he retired in 2016 with a 17-29 record.
In an interview I did with Bazzle for a 2018 feature prior to last year’s Newton-Conover at North Lincoln game, the head coach said he was content to stay in his Wilkes County home “cutting grass and cutting up trees that (fell) across the driveway.” But in 2018, North Lincoln, located in Pumpkin Center in the area where Bazzle grew up, came calling and he found a fit there. The Knights responded with a 10-4 record and a visit to the 2AA state quarterfinals. It was the Knights’ first winning record since 2008.
Meanwhile, Newton-Conover has had mixed success with three different coaches since Bazzle’s departure. The Red Devils went 9-4 in 2012 under Brint Russell, also the last coach to deliver a playoff win, and had the next nine-win season in 2017 under Matt Beam in the last of his four seasons.
Steven Pack took over for the 2018 season and Newton-Conover went 4-7 with a young squad that took their lumps. Wiser and stronger a year later, the Red Devils are now 6-2 overall and on a four-game winning streak, all coming in the conference.
So, it is this setting that Bazzle returns to his old stomping grounds for the first time as the visitor. If you plan to go to the game, get there early.
Other football to watch:
West Iredell at Bunker Hill: Bunker Hill (4-4) hasn’t had a winning record since 2013, West Iredell (5-3) since 2011. Both 3-1 in the Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference, the Bears will host the Warriors to take sole possession of second place.
2) Cross Country Conference Championships (Tuesday and Wednesday)Both the South Fork 2A and Northwestern 3A/4A Conferences will hold their conference championship meets at Southside Park in Newton. The South Fork takes the field Tuesday with the Northwestern running a day later.
The South Fork 2A Conference has some of the strongest long-distance runners in the state on both the boys’ and girls’ teams. For the boys, North Lincoln is the two-time defending 2A state champions and the Knights have many of the same group from last year back again. Lake Norman Charter was fourth in the state a year ago. Lincolnton’s Daniel Hopkins is the defending 2A West Regional champion. Bandys had a strong showing at the recent United Way Invitational, finishing sixth out of 28 teams.
The South Fork girls had three teams in the top nine at last year’s 2A state meet with North Lincoln, Lake Norman Charter and East Lincoln finishing second, third and ninth, respectively. All three schools have done well this season, as has Bandys in conference meets.
For the Northwestern 3A/4A girls, Watauga has dominated the conference meets with Hickory leading the rest of the pack. St. Stephens enters the boys’ race on the tail of the team championship at the United Way Invitational. Tyler Christensen won the individual title at the United Way and won the Caldwell Invite and the Catawba County Championship last month.
3) Volleyball Conference Tournaments (Tonight-Wednesday)South Fork 2A
The top four seeds will host the first round on Monday before the scene shifts to Lake Norman Charter for Tuesday’s semifinals and Wednesday’s finals.
Maiden is the top seed and the two-time defending South Fork tournament champions. Lake Norman Charter and East Lincoln finished in a tie for second, but the tournament’s host got the second seed on a tiebreaker, as the Knights were the lone team to beat Maiden in conference play. While both Lake Norman Charter and the Mustangs will make the 2A state tournament, barring an upset in the first round, those two will play for the league’s second automatic bid and a probable home game in the first round of the state tournament.
Another match to watch is Monday’s first-round contest between No. 5 North Lincoln and No. 4 Bandys. Both were comfortably in the top 64 in last week’s MaxPreps rankings. The Trojans (47th last week) beat North Lincoln (48th) on the road and could be a team to watch as they have given the conference’s top teams fits. Bandys lost to Maiden 3-2 in late September and two weeks ago, the Trojans led East Lincoln 2-1 before the Mustangs rallied.
Northwestern Foothills 2A
The conference tournament will be held at the highest seed all three days.
Fred T. Foard finished off the second straight unbeaten conference season and won the league by four games. Given that the Northwestern Foothills had six teams in MaxPreps’ last 2A rankings, the West No. 1 seed is there for the Tigers to take.
Patton and West Iredell finished in a tie for second with Patton winning a coin flip to get the tournament’s second seed. Barring a first-round upset, the Panthers will host West Iredell on Tuesday with the league’s second automatic bid and a likely home match in the state tournament’s first round up for grabs.
When Patton won the coin flip, that put East Burke in as the fourth seed over Draughn, which will have to travel to East Burke for the first round.
4) St. Stephens soccer at Watauga (Tonight), vs. Alexander Central (Wednesday)St. Stephens was the last school to lose a Northwestern 3A/4A Conference match when it took out Watauga in a shootout. The Indians then lost three straight to fall out of conference contention. Ranked 58th in the last MaxPreps 3A rankings, St. Stephens played itself away from the bubble with a win over eighth-ranked Asheville on Thursday.
Watauga will look for revenge tonight when the Pioneers host St. Stephens. The Indians then look for their own revenge when they host Alexander Central Wednesday. Fresh off the Indians’ win over Watauga, Alexander Central surprised St. Stephens with a 1-0 win in overtime. Ranked 56th last week, the Cougars are also trying to get off the field-of-64 bubble.