The winter sports season begins this week with area teams and individuals chasing basketball, wrestling, swimming and indoor track and field state championships. Its the first winter season with the reshuffled conferences, which will create bigger rivalries in some cases and new rivals in others.
Some of the storylines worth following include:
A new champion?: The girls basketball championship chase in the Two Rivers 3A Conference could go to a team that hasnt won a conference title in at least a decade. Only Western Harnett has recent success in the sport, winning most recently a conference title in 2011.
Smithfield-Selma, which won the Big Eight South 3A Conference title in 2003-04, is the most recent conference championship squad from Johnston County. Cleveland and Corinth Holders in just their fourth seasons havent won a league title yet and South Johnstons last championship season came in 1996.
Pirates move up: Corinth Holders dominated the Northern Carolina 2A Conference ranks in swimming last season but makes the move into a 3A league this season. The Pirates have a lineup full of veteran, state-level swimmers featuring Connor Blanford, Chris Carter, Michaela Carter, Stephanie Grandin and Amanda Knickerbocker.
Clevelands girls team is expected to contend in the championship race as well. The Rams were Eastern Carolina 3A Conference champions last winter.
Does Wests dominance continue? West Johnston is back with a solid lineup of wrestlers and is probably the favorite for another Greater Neuse River 4A Conference team championship, but the Wildcats will have to work through a series of injuries early in the season. Among those banged up is the state runner-up at 106 pounds, Tony Jimenez.
Pirate vs. Ram clash ahead: In the Two Rivers 3A Conference, Corinth Holders joins a league that includes young power Cleveland as well. The Pirates were 40-5 a season ago and return seven starters including Cameron Brewer and Darrius Dunn.
Neuse Charter as a full-fledged member: Neuse Charter played several Carolina 1A Conference teams in basketball last season but gets full membership this season. The boys basketball team was 12-11 a season ago and returns four starters, just two of those are seniors (Jourdan Sanders and Jarrod Sealey). Freshman point guard Jimmie Sanders III, a promising point guard talent, is the son of coach Jimmie Sanders.
Trying to challenge Triton: Triton has become a regional 3A power in the past few season and although the Hawks dont return any starters from last years team, they do have six lettermen back from a 23-win club.
Smithfield-Selma, making the move down from the 4A level, got off to a hot start last season but struggled down the stretch, finishing 10-14 with nine losses by six points or less in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference. Quantez Leach, Zay Best, Tony Hobbs, Tito Campbell and Leroy Hill make up a promising, hard-working senior class.
Challengers try to step up: The Greater Neuse River 4A Conference basketball races have boiled down to three teams the past few seasons: Southeast Raleighs girls, Garners boys and Claytons boys. All three look strong again with Southeast led by N.C. State recruit Amber Richardson and D-I prospect Alexus Hicks, Clayton anchored by Cincinnati recruit Gary Clark and Garner led by veteran guard Julius Barnes.
East Wake and Clayton on the girls side and Knightdale and Southeast on the boys side have been the most consistent challengers of late.
The Panthers move to the northeast: North Johnston debuts in the Eastern Plains 2A Conference with longer bus ride awaiting. The Panthers girls team won 20 a season ago and return another lineup full of talented multi-sport athletes including leading returning scorer Chandler Hines (13 points, 5.6 assists).
Princeton tries another carryover: Princetons girls basketball team which includes much of its talented volleyball roster has made the playoffs in basketball each of the past two seasons, advancing to the second round in 2012. The Bulldogs hope to ride that volleyball momentum a little further into late February this time around.
Bulldogs eye the playoffs: Wake Christian enters its second year of NCISAA 3A competition and is hoping to build on last season. The Bulldog boys team went 13-9 but struggled in Triangle Independent Schools Athletic Conference play.
Best: 919-524-8895 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dclaybest