Josh Talbert and Daly Burgess

St. Stephens' Josh Talbert and Daly Burgess dive in for the start of the 500-yard freestyle event during last year's Northwestern 3A/4A Conference championship meet.

After a light couple of weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s back to the gyms for teams as all the schools finally will begin their seasons this week.

Coaches for basketball teams are figuring out what they have on the floor in nonconference games and in the early going, it appears the girls have the better matchups in what should be a tough year for that sport.

While dual meets certainly dot the schedules in wrestling, the focus for most turn to weekend tournaments in December.

Here is some of what to look for this week:

1) Hickory at Newton-Conover girls basketball (Tuesday)Two of the better girls basketball programs in the area will meet for the first of at least two times this week when the Red Devils host Hickory Tuesday night.

About 10 years ago, this was a must-see event during the nonconference portion of the season. In 2010, Newton-Conover won two of three, including the finals of the Catawba Valley Classic, then the next year the teams split the two scheduled meetings before Hickory captured the holiday tournament. From there, Hickory asserted its dominance over the Red Devils by winning 13 in a row and 16 of 17. The last two wins came a year ago by 15 and 20 points, but in the third meeting at last year’s holiday tourney, Newton-Conover claimed the championship, and in the process snapped Hickory’s eight-year hold on the tournament title.

Led by center Chyna Cornwell (28.3 points per game, 20.5 rebounds per game in 2018-19), who recently signed a letter-of-intent with Rutgers, the Red Devils shook off a 1-4 start and finished 25-5, which ended in the third round of the 2A state tournament.

After a 13-12 record in 2017-18, the Red Tornadoes bounced back to 18-8 last year and advanced to the second round of the 3A state tournament. Hickory is one of the few teams in the region that can provide a true matchup in the post against Cornwell. Six-foot-five senior Shelby Darden (14 ppg, 8 rpg), who signed to play for Belmont Abbey, has held her own against the talented Cornwell the past two years.

Newton-Conover opened the year with a win at Bunker Hill before losing at 4A school Hopewell in Huntersville. Hickory started the season last Monday with a blowout of Draughn. This will be a good test for both as the season amps up.

2) St. Stephens at Newton-Conover wrestling (Thursday)The gauntlet of tough nonconference matches that happen in this area are not only for bragging rights, but they also serve to prepare teams for the postseason.

A year ago, these two squads met with unbeaten records on the line before St. Stephens sent the Red Devils home with their first loss. The two split the 14 bouts, but the Indians had two pins and two technical falls for bonus points that proved to be the difference. St. Stephens went on to win the 3A dual meet state title, while Newton-Conover lost in the 2A West final to eventual state champion West Lincoln.

After finishing 43-0 in duals last year, the Indians opened up this season with 11 wins in a row, which included the first two at last Wednesday’s dual tournament at Lake Norman High. St. Stephens was then routed by Central Academy, last year’s 2A state tournament champion; Cardinal Gibbons, third in 4A last year; and Lake Norman, fourth in 4A. The young Indians are now getting a sense of what it will take to compete at a high level.

Newton-Conover started the year with a surprising loss at North Gaston, but the Red Devils are starting to see their football players trickle back into the gym after their elimination from the state playoffs. Among that group is Josh Nichols, who is the reigning 2A state champion at 170 pounds, and heavyweight Ryan Walker, who finished fifth in 2A last year. Other state qualifiers back are Cole Clark (182) and Charlie Pettery (152).

3) Hickory, St. Stephens, South Caldwell, Watauga swimming (Tuesday)

The column last week gave some background on the budding rivalry between South Caldwell and St. Stephens in boys swimming. Those teams will meet again, but the girls’ half of this week’s Northwestern 3A/4A Conference meet bears watching as well.

At last season’s champions meet, Watauga ended St. Stephens’ three-year reign to win the conference title. The Pioneers set the pace in the first race by winning the 200-yard medley relay by .06 seconds en route to the championship.

One swimmer off to a good start for the Indians is Katelyn Parmenter, who has already qualified for regionals in the 200 and 500-yard freestyle events.

While the conference championship is in January, the first meeting will give a hint of where the two programs stand.

4) Maiden at Fred T. Foard girls basketball (Friday)

Among the most surprising results early in the 2018-19 season was Fred T. Foard’s first win over Maiden. In hindsight, it was a part of the shifting landscape for the two programs, as the Tigers went on to win all three meetings last year.

At the time of the first game in early December, Foard had entered the season 14-103 over the five seasons since winning a co-championship in the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference in 2012-13. It didn’t look like it would be any better after losing at St. Stephens by 20 and to McDowell by 50 to start last season. However, against the South Fork 2A runner-up, Foard won at Maiden by three and went on to its first three-game win streak win since 2016-17.

Led by Hickory Daily Record freshman of the year Alexis Wolgemuth, the Tigers went 12-15 and made their first trip to state playoff in six years.

Are the Tigers at the level of Northwestern Foothills 2A queens East Burke? That may be a bit much to ask. Are they getting close to even with the second-tier teams such as Bunker Hill or Patton? That may not be such a stretch. Coach Brandy Dawkins has proven she can get the most out of a team, as shown by a pair of games against Bunker Hill last year. Just over three weeks after losing to the Bears by 52, Foard squeaked out a two-point win.

With just one senior on the roster, the Tigers routed West Lincoln last week, but they’ll get a taste of where they are in games against St. Stephens and Newton-Conover this week before hosting Maiden Friday.

For the Blue Devils, they lost center Zoe Huffman to a knee injury and that started the ball rolling to a 9-17 record in the first year with returning coach Frank Snider. Maiden lost just two seniors but started the season on a sour note in a 50-33 loss at home to Bunker Hill.

Others to watch:

Indian Classic Wrestling (Saturday)

Currently scheduled for this annual tournament at St. Stephens are the defending 3A state dual meet champions (St. Stephens), the defending 2A state dual meet champions (West Lincoln) and the defending 4A state tournament champions (Mooresville).

Freedom at East Burke, girls basketball (Friday)

In the battle between these two Burke County titans, Freedom won the first game last week 64-57. However, a 20-point lead by the Patriots dwindled to four in the final minute before they held on. This week’s game is at East Burke and it should be another tough one between state contenders.

HIGH SCHOOL VARSITY SCHEDULE

Schedules listed for the four-county region (Alexander Central, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba) are taken from information provided by the athletic departments of individual schools, from information published by the schools on its websites, or on MaxPreps.com. Most varsity basketball start times are approximate and follow JV contests. Schedules are subject to change without notice. For more information on an event, contact the school.

WEEK OF DEC. 2-7

MONDAY, DEC. 2

BASKETBALL

Lincolnton at Alexander Central, 6 p.m.

St. Stephens at Fred T. Foard, 6 p.m.

TUESDAY, DEC. 3

BASKETBALL

Draughn at South Caldwell, 6:30 p.m.

Hickory at Newton-Conover, 6:30 p.m.

Maiden at Bunker Hill, 6:30 p.m.

Patton at Freedom, 6:30 p.m.

West Lincoln at East Burke, 6:30 p.m.

Bandys at West Caldwell (boys only), 7 p.m.

SWIMMING

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

Hickory, St. Stephens, South Caldwell, Watauga at Hickory Foundation YMCA, 6 p.m.

WRESTLING

Alleghany, Bandys, West Iredell at West Wilkes, 5 p.m.

East Burke, Hibriten at Maiden, 5 p.m.

North Iredell, West Caldwell at Alexander Central, 5:30 p.m.

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 4

BASKETBALL

Fred T. Foard at Newton-Conover, 6 p.m.

St. Stephens at Bandys, 6 p.m.

Burns at Patton, 6:30 p.m.

South Caldwell at Hibriten, 6:30 p.m.

Lincolnton at West Caldwell (boys only), 7 p.m.

SWIMMING

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

Alexander Central, Freedom, McDowell at Wilkes Family YMCA, 6 p.m.

Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference

Draughn, East Burke Valdese Recreation Center, 6 p.m.

Fred T. Foard, Patton, Morganton Aquatic Center, 6 p.m.

Hibriten, West Caldwell, West Iredell at Lenoir Aquatic Center, 6 p.m.

WRESTLING

Bunker Hill, Mooresville, Wheatmore at Cox Mill, 5 p.m.

Enka, Mallard Creek, North Gaston at Fred T. Foard, 5 p.m.

Ashbrook, Cherryville, South Caldwell at Lincolnton, 5:30 p.m.

THURSDAY, DEC. 5

BASKETBALL

Freedom at Draughn, 6:30 p.m.

Hibriten at Maiden, 6:30 p.m.

WRESTLING

Hunter-Huss, Northwest Cabarrus, Patton at Statesville, 5:30 p.m.

St. Stephens at Newton-Conover, 6 p.m.

FRIDAY, DEC. 6

BASKETBALL

St. Stephens at Bunker Hill, 6 p.m.

Maiden at Fred T. Foard, 6 p.m.

Alexander Central at Lincolnton, 6:30 p.m.

Freedom at East Burke, 6:30 p.m.

Patton at South Caldwell, 6:30 p.m.

Statesville at Hickory, 6:30 p.m.

West Caldwell at Bandys (boys only), TBA

WRESTLING

Alexander Central, Newton-Conover at Caitlyn Price Tournament, Alexander Central, 5:30 p.m.

Cox Mill, R-S Central, South Caldwell at Maiden, 5 p.m.

SATURDAY, DEC. 7

WRESTLING

Bunker Hill (B-team), Hibriten at Hampton Tuttle Invitational, Hibriten, 8 a.m.

Bandys at Viking Duals, North Forsyth, 9 a.m.

Draughn, East Burke, Freedom, Fred T. Foard (B-team), Hickory, Patton, West Caldwell at Big Cat Classic, Patton 9 a.m.

Bunker Hill, St. Stephens, Indian Classic, St. Stephens 9 a.m.

Fred T. Foard at CH Necessary Invitational, West Wilkes High, 9 a.m.

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