by Aaron Garcia
Given the amount of attention Union County football teams received before the season ever started, it was going to be difficult for our local squads to live up to their collective lofty billing.
But guess what? They’ve done just that.
So far, the top four teams in the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference have just three losses between them – two of which were earned by Sun Valley. But let’s be fair: The Spartans began the season with one of the toughest non-conference slates in the state. And while Monroe and Forest Hills started out with some uncharacteristic losses, they’ve both rebounded and again look like state-title contenders. Don’t forget about the Union Academy Cardinals, who at 4-1 seem to be coming into their own as a program.
So before we settle in to conference play with another amazing week of games this Friday – such as No. 2 Marvin Ridge at top-ranked Porter Ridge (Can anyone say “Game of the Year?”) – I’d like to pause and share with you my thoughts on some (unofficial) mid-season awards.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE MID-YEAR
This was a tough choice, but Porter Ridge’s Lee McNeill has been nearly perfect this season en route to the Pirates’ 5-0 record. The senior signal-caller has completed 64 of his 96 passes (.667 percent) for 992 yards and nine touchdowns with just four interceptions. What makes him even scarier is the fact he’s also an accomplished runner, gaining 240 yards with four scores on just 37 attempts – good for a 6.49 yards-per-carry average.
Against one of the state’s toughest team’s, Kannapolis A.L. Brown, McNeill threw for 212 yards and a score and added two more touchdowns on the ground with 145 rushing yards, giving the Pirates a signature win.
Even when he’s struggled, McNeill’s’s been a vital cog for Porter Ridge. In the team’s Sept. 16 game against Charlotte Providence Day, McNeill was inconsistent, completing just 15 of his 28 passing attempts for a modest 123 yards and a pair of picks. But he converted a key late-game first down that kept the Chargers from having a chance at the win. It might not have been pretty, but it was effective in keeping the Pirates undefeated.
Other top candidates include Sun Valley quarterback Ryan Smith, Sun Valley running back JaDarrius Williams, Sun Valley receiver Jody Fuller, Weddington quarterback Drew Podreberac, Marvin Ridge quarterback Tyler Chadwick, Union Academy quarterback Tyree Drakeford, Metrolina Christian quarterback Ross Rushing.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE MID-YEAR
In a county full of defensive standouts, Marvin Ridge’s Luke Stennitt has separated himself this season with several game-changing performances. The hard-hitting safety has returned one interception for a score and recovered a blocked punt last week for his second touchdown of the season.
Stennitt has made such an impact through the Mavs’ first five games that offensive coaches routinely game-plan to stop him. Many believe he’s the best defensive player they’ll face this season, and he’s proving them right.
Other top candidates include Porter Ridge defensive ends Justin Oldja and Avery Worsham, Forest Hills linebacker Tyric Laney, Union Academy defensive back Rasheed Rushing and Monroe defensive lineman Mason Sledge.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE MID-YEAR
The easy choice here would be Porter Ridge kicker Matt Wogan, who has converted 28 extra points, averaged 37 yards per punt and sent 27 of 37 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
But Forest Hills return man Marcel Thomas has been a game-breaker on special teams. Not only is the senior averaging 51.3 yards per kick return with two touchdowns, he’s added another pair of scores on punt returns. It’s not easy to find a player who can literally change a game every time he touches the ball.
Other top candidates include Wogan, Porter Ridge return man Jordan Oakley, Sun Valley return man Jody Fuller, Union Academy kick returner Rasheed Rushing and Cuthbertson return man Emmitt Afam.
BREAKOUT PLAYER OF THE MID-YEAR
Monroe junior Quayshawn Chambers bided his time behind former starting quarterback Jalen Sowell, and the patience seems to be paying off. While Monroe’s offense generally starts, and ends, with the run, Chambers has given the Redhawks another dimension with his arm. Though he’s only completed 52 percent of his passes, he’s amassed 764 yards and nine touchdowns with only three interceptions. Furthermore, he’s added 525 yards with four more scores on the ground.
Other candidates include Forest Hills running back C.J. Kiser, Porter Ridge running back Najee Davis, Cuthbertson quarterback Ryan Kendell and Parkwood running back Chad McWhorter.