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WEEKLY WATCH: Spring football is here, and so begins a 7-week sprint

WEEKLY WATCH: Spring football is here, and so begins a 7-week sprint

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Isaiah Thomas

Maiden's Isaiah Thomas (15) finds running room against Newton-Conover in a file photo from the 2019 season.

It’s over six months late but, at long last, the high school football season begins for the 2020-21 academic year. It’ll be a seven-week sprint of a season with almost no nonconference games (the Northwestern 3A/4A is the only conference to have room on the schedule for them) to get ready for league play. Some key matchups get things started on Friday.

State playoffs for high school basketball start this week. Previews for those matchups will be published during this week.

Boys soccer has crossed the midpoint of the season as the conference races have sifted contenders and pretenders. High school lacrosse has battled weather issues, but those teams hope to get some makeup games in with good weather in the forecast for the week.

Here are some of the key contests for the week:

1) Maiden at Bandys football (Friday)

North Lincoln dominated the South Fork 2A Conference last year with Maiden and Newton-Conover slotted into second place. The Knights graduated a large senior class, leaving the hope that the rest of the league can close the gap. The reality of that starts to be made known this week.

Maiden starts the season with one of its biggest rivals on the road. The Blue Devils are due to return quarterback Ethan Rhodes, who threw for 2,223 yards as a sophomore a season ago, as well as senior Amarion Craig, who ran for 1,148 yards. Both had big nights when the Blue Devils ran up a 16-0 lead on the way to a 30-23 win over Bandys in the last meeting. The Blue Devils reached the second round of the playoffs before losing to eventual 2AA state champion Shelby.

Coming off a quarterfinal state playoff appearance in 2018, Bandys started on a roll to get back there in 2019. The Trojans won the first three games before Bunker Hill surprised them at home. The defeat seemed to take the steam out of Bandys, which lost the next week to Maiden and finished with losses in seven of the last nine games, which included a playoff game at Mountain Heritage. The game will also feature the debut of head coach Jason Barnes, who was the defensive coordinator for the team under Tom Eanes, who left after two seasons for Pender.

2) Newton-Conover at Lincolnton football (Friday)

The other team hoping to close the gap is Newton-Conover. With a young team and a veteran running back, the Red Devils opened up 7-1 last season before meeting North Lincoln with a chance to step forward and take the South Fork 2A Conference. North Lincoln routed the Red Devils, which lost in double overtime to Maiden the next week. Newton-Conover made some noise in the playoffs with a win over Thomasville before losing to eventual 2A state champ Reidsville. Newton-Conover returns quarterback Justice Craig, who threw for just under 2,000 yards, but will have to replace leading rusher Allen Wilfong. The defense continued to mature from the 2018 season and many of that group is back for a chance at a conference title.

3) Hickory at Watauga boys soccer (Wednesday)

The cream of the crop in the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference are clearly Hickory and Watauga, who are the only two teams above .500 entering the week.

Hickory is 7-0 with a 41-4 goal margin. Defensively, the Red Tornadoes bottle up opponents, which leaves little work for goalkeeper Mackenzie Tonks. The senior, who recently signed to play soccer at Brevard College, has seen just 28 shots in the seven matches with two goals allowed. Hickory has a balanced scoring attack with four scores at six goals or more. Carter Holt leads the offense with eight goals and 11 assists.

Watauga is 6-1 with a 45-4 goal margin, but three of those scored on the Pioneers came in the first match at Hickory early this month. Since that loss, Watauga has blitzed the next five conference opponents by a combined 40-1 mark, with three 9-0 drubbings.

Hickory has not won at Watuaga since 2016, but a win on Wednesday will put the Red Tornadoes on the path to a conference title.

Given the dominance of these two in the conference, both are likely to make the playoffs, one as the conference champ, the other as one of three wild cards in the 3A West Region.

4) Newton-Conover at Bandys boys soccer (tonight)

Newton-Conover has dominated the series in boys soccer, boasting a 16-1-2 mark over the Catawba County rivals since 2011. However, Bandys has a chance to take a step forward in the rivalry and put its name in the hat for one of two South Fork 2A Conference state playoff berths.

A loss by Newton-Conover at conference leader East Lincoln last Friday sets up the key match with Bandys for second place.

The Red Devils enter the week at 5-1-1 with the tie coming at home against Bandys to open the season. The Trojans are at 3-2-1 with losses to East Lincoln and Lincolnton. Because of the tie, a win by Bandys would give them the tiebreaker over Newton-Conover, should it come down to that.

Both teams will play unbeaten East Lincoln again, so a loss tonight would put either into a position of needing a win over the Mustangs to have a playoff shot.

5) Bunker Hill at Hibriten football (Friday)

Has the corner been turned for Bunker Hill football?

From 2014 to 2018, which followed an 8-5 season, the Bears won six games total. In the second year of coach Patrick Clark’s tenure, Bunker Hill went 6-6 overall and, more importantly, went 5-2 in the conference to finish in a tie for second in the Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference.

But the measuring stick for the conference will be Hibriten, which hasn’t lost during its three seasons in the league. Until proven otherwise, the Panthers, who have won 11 or more games the last four seasons and played in the regional final in three of them, will be the heavy favorite to win the conference.

Bunker Hill kept the game relatively close in 2019 — a 28-6 loss at home —but considering Hibriten outscored everybody in the conference 333-27 last year, perhaps it’s a good starting place from which to build.

It may be a lot to ask for the Bears to beat such a powerhouse, but they faced a similar challenge a season ago. After getting routed in the first three games, Bunker Hill went on the road to face 2018 2AA state quarterfinalist Bandys, which had won its first three games. The Bears eked out a 12-9 win before playing Hibriten tough. Starting 1-4, Bunker Hill won five of six. The Bears hope the corner has turned. On Friday, they’ll find out how much further they have to go.

HIGH SCHOOL VARSITY SCHEDULE:

(Schedules listed are taken from information provided by the conference secretaries, athletic departments of individual schools, from information published by the schools on its websites, or on MaxPreps.com. Schedules are subject to change without notice.)

NOTE FOR OUTDOOR SPORTS: Currently, outdoor sports are limited to 100 spectators. While each school sets its own policy, in many cases, schools will set aside those spots for parents of the players for the home team.

Most schools are web streaming sports events to the public, some for a fee. Here is current information on file for each school (subject to change):

SOUTH FORK 2A CONFERENCE: All games are in sfcnetwork.tv. Click on the link, then click on the school logo at the top of the page for the game of interest (fee required).

NORTHWESTERN FOOTHILLS 2A CONFERENCE:

Bunker Hill: Bunker Hill High School Facebook Page (fee required)

Draughn: DHS Live on YouTube

East Burke: East Burke High Facebook Page

Fred T. Foard: Fred T. Foard High School Facebook Page (fee required)

Hibriten: Hibriten High School on YouTube

Patton: unknown at this time.

West Caldwell: WCHS TV on YouTube

West Iredell: NHFS Network (subscription fee required)

NORTHWESTERN 3A/4A CONFERENCE:

Alexander Central: NFHS Network (subscription fee required)

Freedom: FHS Live on YouTube or Patriot Nation – Freedom Patriot Faithful

Hickory: Hickory High School Facebook Page

McDowell: NFHS Network (subscription fee required)

St. Stephens: Tribal Sports Network on Facebook (fee required)

South Caldwell: SCHS Stream on YouTube

Watauga: NFHS Network (subscription fee required)

WEEK OF FEB. 22-27

MONDAY, FEB. 22

BOYS SOCCER

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

Freedom at Hickory (Henry Fork Soccer Complex), 4 p.m.

McDowell at St. Stephens, 5 p.m.

Watauga at Alexander Central, 5 p.m.

Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference

East Burke at Fred T. Foard, 5 p.m.

West Caldwell at Draughn, 5 p.m.

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

West Iredell at Hibriten, 6:30 p.m.

South Fork 2A Conference

Newton-Conover at Bandys, 5 p.m.

TUESDAY, FEB. 23

NCHSAA STATE BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS ROUND 1

Teams and sites to be announced

LACROSSE (girls/boys DH)

Conference 15 (girls)/Conference 19 (boys)

Watauga at St. Stephens (girls only) 4:30 p.m.

Hickory at Patton, 4:30/6:30 p.m.

BOYS SOCCER

Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference

Bunker Hill at East Burke, 5 p.m.

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 24

BOYS SOCCER

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

Alexander Central at Freedom, 6 p.m.

Hickory at Watauga, 6 p.m.

South Caldwell at McDowell, 6 p.m.

Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference

East Burke at Draughn 5 p.m.

Fred T. Foard at West Iredell, 6:30 p.m.

Hibriten at Patton, 6:30 p.m.

West Caldwell at Bunker Hill, 6:30 p.m.

South Fork 2A Conference

Lake Norman Charter at Maiden, 5 p.m.

Bandys at Lincolnton, 6 p.m.

THURSDAY, FEB. 25

NCHSAA STATE BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS ROUND 2

Teams and sites to be announced

FRIDAY, FEB. 26

FOOTBALL

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

McDowell at Hickory, 7 p.m.

Freedom at St. Stephens, 7 p.m.

Northwestern Foothills 2A Conference

Patton at Fred T. Foard, 7 p.m.

Bunker Hill at Hibriten, 7 p.m.

West Caldwell at East Burke, 7 p.m.

West Iredell at Draughn, 7 p.m.

South Fork 2A Conference

Newton-Conover at Lincolnton, 7 p.m.

Maiden at Bandys, 7 p.m.

Nonconference

Alexander Central at South Iredell, 7 p.m.

LACROSSE (girls/boys DH)

Conference 15 (girls/Conference 19 (boys)

Asheville at Hickory, 4:30/6 p.m.

BOYS SOCCER

South Fork 2A Conference

Lincolnton at Maiden, 5 p.m.

SATURDAY, FEB. 27

NCHSAA STATE BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS QUARTERFINAL ROUND

Teams and sites to be announced

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