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For the first time since 2007, no team from the Tri-9 Conference gets to the enjoy the mystique of the third round of football playoffs.
The third round is an understood watermark for becoming an elite football program in North Carolina. Make that round enough times, and soon your team is being talked about from the coast to the mountains.
This wasn’t necessarily a weak year for the Tri-9, though the league didn’t fare as well in regular-season nonconference games (12-11) than last year. But area teams couldn’t have asked for more difficult playoff matchups.
All told, the four nonconference teams to knock out the Tri-9 playoff teams are a combined 47-2 going into this week.
Cary and Fuquay-Varina (which defeated Green Hope) had to get past Richmond County, while Lee County played Scotland in the second round.
Athens Drive had Garner in the first round, a team which it never matches up well against.
That left the league’s best hope at a third-round appearance on Middle Creek’s ability to beat an undefeated team. It was just too tall of a task – barely – for the Mustangs to pull off.
First-year coaches: A big part of this season’s intrigue was the debut of five different head coaches, and all had some things to be proud of this year.
Two – almost three – reached the playoffs. Two others had teams that showed fight despite losing records.
Green Hope’s rise: The 2011 season was nice, when the Falcons stopped the state’s longest losing streak. But this year took it to another level.
It was the perfect combo of a coach with a chip on his shoulder and players who were tired of hearing about previous seasons. Green Hope went 6-6 overall and will return several starters – plus a conference championship junior varsity team – next year.
The ascension may not be over yet.
Patterns: In the last five years, four teams – Middle Creek, Fuquay-Varina, Cary and Athens Drive – have made the postseason 19 out of 20 times. (Athens Drive in 2010 is the only exception.) And since the conference is usually good for five playoff teams, the rotating door on who that fifth team is has made this league fun to watch.
In 2008, it was Apex. Panther Creek made three straight appearances from 2009-2011. Holly Springs and Lee County have mixed in appearances, each finishing as high as second or tied for second.
If you look to other area 4A conferences, you’ll usually see a gulf of talent between the top teams and everyone else. Garner’s rarely challenged in the Greater Neuse River Conference. The same three teams reign every year in the Cap-8, the same two in the PAC-6.
But it’s never quite that easy in the Tri-9.
All nine teams picked up at least one conference win this year, a feat that hadn’t been done in the league since 2003.
A look to next year: Two big scheduling changes will take effect next season.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association will change its football schedule back to an 11-games-in-12-weeks format. The last two years have been 11-in-11, which has made scheduling difficult. Many teams have played just 10.
The second change is realignment, and with Lee County moving to 3A, that will leave remaining Tri-9 (soon to be Tri-8) teams with four nonconference dates and seven conference games.
As always, the all-conference teams were made up of mostly seniors. But much talent remains, even for schools that missed the postseason, and that should make next year just as entertaining.