We gave you the breakdown for the northern half of the conference on Thursday, so now it's time to look along Highway 55 and farther south for the rest of the Tri-9 football teams and their schedules for the upcoming year.
Things are a bit tricky now with Holly Springs joining the conference. There will be one conference team with a bye week every week of the conference season, there will only be three non-conference games and some teams who will have to meet in the same location as last year's games.
Fuquay-Varina: First off, I'm not a fan of Fuquay choosing this year to break off their annual non-conference engagement with Harnett Central, which had been taking place every year since 2004. The Trojans had just moved up to 4-A and would've been a chance for Fuquay to avenge last year's 38-14 loss. But on a positive note, the Bengals don't play traditional opponent Western Harnett (a series that dates back at least a decade and covers three conferences), which means no 3-A opponent for the defending Tri-Eight champs. The Bengals are sweeping the Greater Neuse Conference, playing Knightdale at home, then at Clayton, then home again with West Johnston (the only team on the schedule with a running back — K.J. Frederick — on par with FV junior Cory Hunter). The non-conference schedule is manageable enough, and so is the conference slate with an even amount of away and home games. The conference opener is at Cary, then it's a tough one at Panther Creek. Lose that one, and immediately it becomes an uphill battle to win the Tri-9. Fuquay re-visits Apex this year, on the same field where they clinched the Tri-Eight championship in 2008. The Bengals also have a tough away game against Middle Creek but do get Holly Springs, Athens Drive and Lee County (senior night) at home.
Non-conference opponents: Knightdale, @ Clayton, West Johnston
Green Hope: It's going to be a trying year for Green Hope after losing last year's starting quarterback Kameron Bryant to Panther Creek. Bryant made honorable mention all-conference despite being a sophomore starting quarterback on an 0-11 team. The goal for the Falcons is simple this year: snap the streak. Green Hope hasn't won a game since 2007, a span of 16 games. Starting in 2005, the Falcons have lost 36 of their 38 games, and one of those wins was a 41-6 beating that was reversed after Northern Durham was forced to forfeit its wins. The non-conference slate doesn't give Green Hope much hope, with dates at Wakefield and hosting a Leesville Road team that won last year 49-0 and a Durham Jordan team that took last year's match-up 45-14. At least the conference slate is far enough, giving Green Hope four home games against Middle Creek, Cary, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs. One interesting note: senior night and the season finale both come a week early for Green Hope when the team plays Holly Springs. Due to the odd number of teams in the conference, each team must have a bye week during the conference schedule, and Green Hope's bye happens to be on the last week of the regular season.
Non-conference opponents: at Wakefield, Leesville Road, at Durham Jordan
Holly Springs: The Golden Hawks could be much improved this year, but we might not know for sure until the second week of the regular season. That's because Holly Springs opens up with Southeast Raleigh and their star players (linebacker Kendall Moore, committed to Notre Dame; quarterback Gabe Henderson, down to three D-1 schools) coming into town. The next week is Wakefield, and the final non-conference game is at 3-A opponent Wilson Hunt (4-8 last year). Holly Springs has its four conference home games against Lee County, Panther Creek, Apex and Athens Drive (season finale, senior night). Also, the Golden Hawks will kick off what should be an intense in-conference rivalry at Fuquay on Oct. 9. Holly Springs is considered by some as a sleeper in the Tri-9. If that's the case, they'll have the chance to prove themselves at Middle Creek in the conference opener.
Lee County: New head coach Burton Cates should inject new life into Lee County — a program that's never lacked talent but has come up with just five wins in the past two years while graduating a FBS recruit each year (Andrew Stryffeler and Jay Hollingsworth). Cates was 236-81 in his 28 years at Eastern Randolph, a powerhouse in the 3-A and 2-A ranks. The first game for Cates will be against old Tri-Seven rival Western Harnett. The programs are near-mirror images. Each was one of the best programs in the Tri-Seven. Each had a new school in the area slice the enrollment down from 2,000-plus students to far less than that and both suffered to recover on the gridiron. It'll be a good litmus test for the Yellow Jackets to see how far ahead they are at progressing. If Lee, for some reason, doesn't pull out the win, expect them to drop to 0-2 since the very next week they play at defending champion and perennial powerhouse Richmond County before coming home to face rival Southern Lee. The conference schedule includes home games with Apex to start the Tri-9 season, Green Hope, Middle Creek and Panther Creek on Senior Night. The away games are at Holly Springs, Athens Drive, Cary and Fuquay-Varina (season finale). Getting both of the Creeks and Apex at home is a very favorable position to be in if, indeed, this is a program that was one big hire away from breaking through. Whether that's truly the case for the conference's smallest school (about 300 fewer students than the next smallest, Middle Creek) remains to be seen.
Non-conference opponents: Western Harnett, at Richmond County, Southern Lee
Panther Creek: The Catamounts actually have an open date during its non-conference schedule, separating games at Leesville Road and home with Durham Jordan from a trip to Sanderson. If PC walks away from those games with a pair of wins, it's on the right track to contend for a conference title. It would also be a good dose of confidence going into the conference schedule, which starts off with a road trip to defending champ Fuquay-Varina and a home game versus Apex. It's all downhill after that, as the Catamounts will have already played the hardest part of their schedule, with games at Holly Springs, home with Green Hope, at Athens Drive, home with Middle Creek, at Lee County and a home game against Cary to wrap up the season on Senior Night. Perhaps that's why PC is participating in so many 7-on-7's this offseason. They'll need to be clicking on all cylinders right off the bat if it wants to compete for a Tri-9 championship.
Non-conference opponents: at Leesville Road, Durham Jordan, at Sanderson