Even if you take football out of the equation, the 2008 fall sports season was one of the most remarkable on record for this area.
The bold headlines were plentiful on the pages of The Tribune from August through November.
• East Wilkes’ girls tennis team won a state championship, with the Cardinals’ top two players collecting a 1A doubles title together.
• East’s Eric Blackburn beat all challengers in the 1A cross country state finale, while teammate Carol Blankenship crossed in third in the girls race.
• Starmount’s girls volleyball team rolled through the conference unbeaten again and didn’t stop until reaching the 2A state semfinals (beating a very good North Surry team four times for the year).
• Lady Ram tennis player Carla Cave won a conference singles crown and earned a berth in the state tournament.
• East Wilkes captured its first volleyball playoff victory in more than a decade.
• A youth Elkin soccer team proved competitive in the Northwest 1A, posting a winning record and getting back to the state playoffs. Starmount soccer also kept its streak alive of state post-season berths, etc.
It’s going to be tough to beat, but here we are on the eve of another fall sports season, which starts today and tomorrow for most volleyball, soccer and girls tennis teams. Here are some of the more intriguing story lines to follow the next few months in sports other than the gridiron:
• How far can Starmount volleyball go?
Conventional wisdom would say that this is a year for the Rams to experience a big drop off. A lot of talent graduated from coach Jon Symons’ program the past couple of years, including three 2008 stars who are now getting ready to play college sports (Jordan Raye, Jana Matthews and Meme Brown).
While Symons will downplay his team’s potential for 2009, the Rams still look like the team to beat in the new Mountain Valley 1A/2A.
A lot of roles will change, but there will be plenty of talent back on the court this fall, with varsity veterans like Cory Hutchens, Olivia Gough, Ashley Wilkins and Brinsley Stewart among the returnees.
The future looks bright with Symons’ program getting a nice crop of players coming up from West Yadkin School.
North Surry will be the ones to watch in 2A this season, at least in the West. The Greyhounds are slated to have everyone back from a team that nearly beat Starmount a couple of times last fall (including in the conference tournament finale).
But don’t overlook the Rams. It’s not too far-fetched to say they could make another deep playoff run despite the big holes to fill from the last couple of graduating classes.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, two big obstacles won’t be there in the 2A brackets for whoever advances to the later rounds. Both West Henderson (2008 state champions) and Cardinal Gibbons (2006 and 2007 state champions) have moved up to the 3A classification for at least the next four-year cycle.
• Will there be more cross country state championships?
East Wilkes has been a mainstay among the 1A elite in recent years. Anna Hayes finished in the top 11 individually all four years with the Cardinals, including a runner-up showing in 2006. Blackburn led East to a team state title in 2007 and won an individual gold a year ago.
Look for junior Carol Blankenship to keep the mojo going this fall. She won nearly all of her races a year ago as a sophomore — including the conference and Midwest Region meets — before placing third at state.
Blankenship is listed as the 1A girls favorite heading into the season by www.ncrunners.com.
On the boys side, look for Starmount senior Aaron Combs to make some noise in the 2A ranks. He’s traditionally been more of a track star, specializing in events like the 400 and 800 meters. But he has added longer distances to his repertoire over the past year, and he’s listed as a top-five contender in the state cross country heading into the 2A season.
Both the East Wilkes girls and Starmount boys look strong overall in the new MVAC 1A/2A.
• What will East Wilkes tennis do for an encore?
Coach Aaron Simmons doesn’t like to play the compare-this-year-to-last-year game. He knows his Cardinals lost a lot of its weaponry from the state championship season.
But East Wilkes has a solid enough program that the Cards should be right there in the mix in what is looking like a competitive Mountain Valley league. Jessica Taylor and Amy Hill, who both played key roles a year ago for East’s varsity, will lead the way.
Expect a nice battle between the Cardinals, Elkin, Wilkes Central, Starmount and Ashe County for MVAC supremacy.
• Can anyone in the MVAC overtake Forbush on the pitch?
The Falcons have been the team to beat in boys and girls soccer the past few years. Coach Seth Davis’ boys team went 18-3-1 last autumn, advancing to the 2A quarterfinals before falling to Shelby.
Forbush will be tough to catch this season, but Elkin, Starmount and Wilkes Central appear the most likely challengers. Wilkes Central was the only conference team to beat the Falcons a year ago. Starmount gave Wilkes Central a couple of tough games, including a 5-4 loss at home.
Elkin is looking to finish tops among the 1A schools in the conference. Expect the Elks to battle it out with West Wilkes and East Wilkes for that honor.