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Did you know how strong high school football talent is in NC? Let us explain

Since you are reading today’s sports page, I’m going to go on a hunch and presume that you are sports fans. Given the time of year, I imagine many you enjoyed the opening week of the National Football League season, and especially the Carolina Panthers’ win over the New York Jets.

While football is among the most popular sports in the United States today — and college football is certainly king in the South — how many casual sports fans really take notice of the level of talent playing in your own back yards?

While I’m a product of North Carolina, hailing from right here in the Piedmont, I’m keenly aware that both metropolitan areas of Charlotte and Raleigh are filled with transplanted residents who grew up in many other locations across the country. Because of that, many of you just aren’t as tuned in to some of the talent that our local high schools produce.

I bet many of you didn’t know that, on average, the state of North Carolina ranks eighth-best nationally for sending its home-grown high school players on to participate in the NFL. In the 2021 NFL draft, the Tar Heel State ranked sixth for most players selected.

Ask yourself: Who are some of our top local NFL stars? Many of you will instantly think of high draft picks like Julius Peppers, Todd Gurley or Mario Williams, and some of the older fans may recall early league stars such as Roman Gabriel, Bobby Bell or Sonny Jurgensen. For a state that once was known more for its hoops talent, we’re quickly climbing the ladder nationally for our brand of prep football.

This past week, about 20 of our schools decided to change it up and schedule some out-of-state opponents. Some of those teams were local border schools that traditionally play our teams, but a few of our programs really set out to play some prominent opponents.

Maury High School is a traditional Tidewater region powerhouse located in Norfolk. The Dyrri McClain-led program won the 5A state championship in 2019 and are winners of 35 of their last 39 games.

On Friday, in what was billed as a heavyweight battle between two of the top programs from Virginia and North Carolina, the Commodores traveled to New Bern but came up short 29-27 to Torrey Nowell’s Bears.

Nowell, who has also coached in Virginia, knew the opportunity that existed by challenging his team so early in the season, and against such a top-tier opponent.

“For us, it was big (beating Maury) because it felt like a playoff game”, Nowell said while recapping this incredible win for his program. “We were able to get that kind of big-game experience against really good team that probably won’t lose another game this season. This kind of win helps our program grow.”

Because he has coached at big programs in both states, he understands how strong the talent is from that region.

“We match up pretty well athletically (against teams from the Tidewater),” he added. “We don’t always get as much media exposure as them because we’re farther out from those big schools in the Tidewater area. But by playing those teams helps, it allows you to have a lot of your players get seen in bigger games, and being able to compete against those teams helps us out a lot in recruiting.”

His team wasn’t the only North Carolina program who was up for the challenge against a stronger program. Mallard Creek head coach Kennedy Tinsley took his young Mavericks down Interstate 85 to face Upstate power Gaffney at their impressive stadium known as The Reservation.

While they came home with a 38-14 loss, the experience factor may pay even bigger benefits for the Mavericks as they prepare to enter the conference season.

“Ultimately, I think when you get the opportunity to play in a big game like that, you get to represent your state,” Tinsley said. “The experience playing in a place that obviously thinks highly of their football program, by what they invest in it, the new stadium, the jumbotron, and the brand-new weight room, it was a fun experience. We didn’t play well, but we did leave feeling we could compete with those guys.”

Overall last week, North Carolina teams only won eight of the games against out-of-state foes, including some tough setbacks to powerhouses from Georgia, South Carolina and more teams from the Tidewater region of Virginia, but it’s great to see local coaches challenging themselves and providing their young student-athletes with memories that will last forever.

Big week of games

We’ve got a great slate of games taking place across the state. Some schools are entering conference play for the first time this week; others will be making their final non-conference tune-ups before the stakes rise in league play.

In the Triad, we’ve got a big Central Piedmont 4A battle between Forsyth foes as the defending 3AA champion Mount Tabor Spartans travel to the Village of Clemmons to take on West Forsyth. Jerry Peoples Stadium will be packed, so arrive early.

Ardrey Kell could be one of the up-and-coming programs on the rise in the 4A ranks and they’ll get a big test Friday against Porter Ridge.

In Cabarrus County, A.L. Brown travels to Hickory Ridge to see which one of these teams can get an early advantage in the Greater Metro 4A conference. These two teams have produced some great games in the past so buckle-up for another barnburner.

West Stanly will host Triad power Oak Grove on Friday, this is a chance for the up-and-coming Colts to climb into the top echelon teams in the 2A class.

Leesville Road will have to shake off a sluggish performance against Southern Durham and head into Wake Forest who comes in looking to rebound from last week’s tough loss to Cardinal Gibbons.

Craven County will be the scene of the biggest game in eastern North Carolina as Havelock travels to New Bern in a clash of undefeated programs. Did I mention that these two schools are arch-rivals? Yeah, I’d get there early.

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