The Best of the Best

Sports Editor Andrew Stark is taking his annual look back on the season that was in Matthews and Mint Hill sports this week and ranks his top 10 games or teams of the season. There was a lot to choose from this year and some teams didn’t quite make the cut. Here’s a look at who did.

1) Rocky River football (11-3, 5-1)

The 2013 Rocky River Ravens won a school record 11 games, the Southwestern 4A conference championship and advanced to the third round of the playoffs.

The 2013 Rocky River Ravens won a school record 11 games, the Southwestern 4A conference championship and advanced to the third round of the playoffs.

Oh what a year for the Rocky River football team.

The Ravens won the first playoff games in their brief history, advanced to the third round of the Class 4A state playoffs, defeated perennial power Butler for the first time and won their first Southwestern 4A title while finishing with an 11-3 overall record – which included an eight-game win streak.

Whew, that was a lot to take in.

But for coach Jason Fowler, who began the program in 2010 when the Ravens went 0-10 and came within two touchdowns of a win just once, this was all part of his master plan.

“I said I had a five-year plan coming in, but I think we’re a year ahead of schedule,” Fowler said earlier this season. “Next year was the year I looked at to win the conference and make a deep run, but we did it this season. Now we have to build on it.”

There’s plenty to build on for Fowler and his team for all they achieved this year. And as for as good as the team was, the 2013 Ravens were a team loaded with individual standouts working toward one goal.

They employed a two-quarterback system that worked like a charm as Christian Allen-Brown and Naiil Ramadan – a rising senior who will run the 2014 offense – combined to throw for more than 1,600 yards and run for nearly 500 more.

And running was another specialty of this team, as Elijah Jett (705 yards, seven TDs), Deron Davis (566, six TDs) and Rashaad Brannon (622, six TDs) spelled each other and delivered an incredible three-headed rushing attack that the quarterbacks beautifully accented.

The Ravens could take the game to the air, too. Charlotte 49ers commit and junior receiver/defensive back Jaire Alexander led the way with 464 yards, but speedsters Devryn Galloway (395 yards) and Kaylan Love-Soles (239) joined steady Aaron Cole (334) to form a venerable group of receiving options.

While the dangerous offense did more than its share of damage, the trademark of any Fowler-led team is defense and this Ravens team was exceptionally good, holding their opponents to 21 or fewer points in 11 games.

High-volume tacklers Danny Dunning (114 total tackles), Lamar Hood (95), Darian Washington (91, three interceptions) and Caleb Brown (90) led the way underneath allowing Alexander (seven interceptions) to help a ball-hawking secondary shut down opposing passing attacks.

All in all and pound for pound the Ravens earned the nod for the best team in Matthews-Mint Hill this season.


2) Butler football (11-5, 5-2)


For a program as proud and as storied as the Butler football team has been – especially over the last five years when the Bulldogs have won three Class 4-AA state titles and gone 68-7 during that stretch – the 2013 season was, admittedly, a down year.

But there was good reason for that as the Bulldogs graduated 31 seniors – many of whom are playing college football around the country – from their state championship winning team.

However, in Butler Country a down year doesn’t mean what it does in most other programs and they didn’t use the exodus of talent and leadership as an excuse. The Bulldogs still finished second in the Southwestern 4A conference and made their usual march through the playoffs, advancing all the way to the Western Regional championship game where they fell to eventual state champion Mallard Creek.

But don’t feel too bad for them.

The core of this group will return in 2014 to have the final say in their legacy. And the Bulldogs will be loaded – especially on offense with North Carolina recruit Anthony Ratliff at quarterback, Benny LeMay at running back and Charlotte 49er commit Alex Barrow at receiver. Combine that with defensive standouts Clifton Duck and Jarrett Norman in the backfield, Jay Gibbs and Creighton Howard at linebacker and Jalen Cousar and Antoine Broom up front, and this team will be back in state title contention after a better-than-expected 2013.


3) Covenant Day volleyball (32-4)


The Covenant Day volleyball team has taken steps in each of coach Heather Mills’ six seasons, but the Lions took a major jump this year, winning a school record 32 games and playing for the program’s first state championship.

The Lions defeated nine-time defending champion Charlotte Latin (twice) for the first time in school history, won an epic 3-2 match over state champion Charlotte Country Day and capped off their second consecutive season unbeaten in the Metrolina Athletic Conference, going 14-0.

The Lions will move into the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association’s Class 3A conference next year alongside Charlotte Latin, Charlotte Christian, Charlotte Country Day, Providence Day and Cannon, but they’ll be an immediate conference contender.

Eleven of their top 12 attackers return, including Christina Goforth (389 kills, 218 digs), Sarah Billiard (386 kills), Hannah Billiard (259 kills, 67 blocks) and Megan Embry (921 assists, 286 digs, 95 kills) as do defensive specialists Macy Henry (444 digs) and Charissa Coleman (310 digs), making Covenant Day legitimate state title contenders.

So, as good as 2013 was – and it was outstanding – 2014 may be even better.


4) Butler vs. Independence football (Nov. 8, 2013) 

Butler wins 43-42

This is the game people around the Matthews-Mint Hill area will talk about the rest of their lives and if you were one of the lucky spectators to be in attendance that night – no matter who you were rooting for – consider yourself extremely fortunate, for you were witness to history.

The game – always intense and unpredictable when these schools meet and especially on the football field – was moving along nicely as Independence led Butler, 21-20, entering the fourth quarter.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

Of the 85 points in the game, 44 were scored in the fourth quarter and the action only got better as the game wore on. There were four full-length touchdown drives in the final 2:58, and if it had gone on longer, both teams would have likely continued to amaze with their awe-inspiring drives.

Butler quarterback Anthony Ratliff started the madness, finding Jordan Huntley with 2:58 to play, giving the Bulldogs a 35-28 lead. Independence’s Kelvin Hopkins answered with a touchdown strike with 1:12 to play and after a 2-point conversion, the Patriots led, 36-35.

Ratliff hit Clifton Duck on a huge pass down the left sideline and later found Benny LeMay for a 13-yard TD and, after a 2-point conversion, led 43-36 with 38 seconds to go.

Independence wasn’t to be outdone and answered as Hopkins hit Workpeh Kofa with no time on the clock. The Patriots, down 43-42, went for the 2-point conversion and the win, but were called for an offensive penalty. Backed up five yards, they tried an extra point, but the kick was unsuccessful – the fourth missed extra point of the game between the two teams – leading to the final score.

Hopkins threw for 262 yards and four TDs, Isaiah Robinson ran for 132 yards and two scores and Kofa had eight catches for 102 yards and three TDs for the Patriots. Ratliff threw for 247 yards and five TDs and LeMay ran for 137 yards and had five catches for 111 yards and two TDs in the thriller for the Bulldogs.

What a night. What a game.


5) Independence baseball (18-9, 13-1)


It was a return to glory for the Independence baseball team, which made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and won their conference for the first time since 2004.

But this isn’t just a feel good story – the Patriots were legit. They went 13-1 in the Southwestern 4A – one of the state’s historically dominant conferences – and did so in a variety of ways.

They had pitching in James Hickes (8-2, 2.07 ERA) and RJ Merli (6-2, 2.09 ERA), senior leadership in Triston Glover (.429, 27 RBIs), Joe Guns (.375), Jordan May (.325, 17 runs) and Jacob Fairfax (.311, 33 runs, 17 stolen bases) and a group of eight total seniors who built the Patriots back into winners.

With a talented underclass that features Cameron Allen, Oliver Moore and Jarrett Thompson, among others, this is just the beginning of the Patriot baseball resurgence. But this team will go down as the group that brought the winning tradition back to John Matthews Field.


6) Independence basketball (18-11, 12-2)


The Independence basketball team had turned a two-win season into a conference champion in 2012-13 and was poised to build on that success.

But with an experienced core returning, surrounded by a group of unproven and inexperienced players, coach Preston Davis knew getting his team ready for the playoff run and meat of the conference season would need to happen quickly at the beginning of the season, so he created a brutal schedule.

The Patriots struggled, going 6-8 as 2013 rolled into 2014. But, as others wrote them off, the team developed chemistry and confidence and it showed.

They went 12-3 the rest of the way, won the conference title and again advanced to the third round of the Class 4A tournament.

Four seniors – Deion Lane (17 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists), Tayon Gleaves (16.1 points, three assists), Workpeh Kofa (10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Herbert Bowen Jr. (9.4 points, 4.9 assists) – put the Patriots on their backs and carried on the proud tradition of Independence basketball.


7) Butler boys basketball (20-7, 10-3)


The Butler boys basketball team struggled mightily in the 2012-13 season, but with an influx in talent quickly bounced back to be a state title contender.

The Bulldogs began this season 0-3 as they struggled to gel into a collective unit with transfers Giavonni Mack (22 points, eight assists, five rebounds), Matthew Fisher-Davis (24 points, 14 rebounds) and Orlando Robinson (seven points, five assists) learning to play with each other and with holdovers RaeQuan Scott (13 points) and Jay Gibbs (10 points, eight rebounds).

Once they started clicking, it was pure magic.

Butler went on a 13-1 tear after their slow start and lived up to the hype after Fisher-Davis, a sweet-shooting Vanderbilt recruit, and Mack, a heady North Texas commit, arrived on campus.

The Bulldogs won the Southwestern 4A conference tournament for the fourth time in five seasons and went on to the second round of the state playoffs. Had a three-point loss to Berry not ended their season prematurely, who knows how far they could’ve gone.


8) Butler girls basketball (20-9, 10-3)


It was another ho-hum season for what’s become one of the state’s most dependable girls basketball programs.

Year after year, the Butler girls basketball team is written off and not discussed as the Southwestern 4A No. 2 team behind state champion Myers Park, and year after year they become just that.

This season was no exception.

Coach Mark Sanders led a team, which had just two seniors and returned just two starters, to a 20-win season in which they played in the conference tournament final and advanced to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.

He had help in junior guard Kobe Leigh (14 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.5 steals) and sophomore point guard Fairen Sutton (11.5 points, 3.1 assists) who teamed with senior Laura Hayes (8.7 points), sophomore Erin Whitley (7.3 points, 4.8 rebounds) and sophomore Keyannah Richardson (6.8 rebounds) to form the nucleus of the surprise Bulldogs.

As good as this year was, Sanders has his most experienced and deep team he’s had in years coming back next year, so expect more of the same.


9) Rocky River girls basketball (19-8, 9-5)


The Rocky River girls basketball team had its best season to date as the Ravens jumped out the gate to go 14-3 and turn heads in the always-tough Southwestern 4A.

The strength of this team was the backcourt, led by junior Hydeia Harvey, who was the Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly Player of the Year after averaging 11.1 points and eight rebounds per game.

Harvey, who became the Ravens’ second all-conference player last season, had help in a pair of freshmen backcourt mates in Ta’Naeschia Dorsey (13 points) and Arianna Nance (11 points, 3.6 rebounds) who turned around the fortunes of Rocky River girls basketball, a team which had won 21 games in its first three seasons of

But, coach Odis Gadson knows, this season is just the beginning of the turnaround.

“We’re off to a good start,” Gadson said earlier this year.  “We have a good group of girls, they work hard and they play hard. We have some really good talent and I’m really excited to see where we can go.”


10) Independence girls lacrosse (8-10, 5-4)


Don’t let the record fool you; this was a banner year for the Independence girls lacrosse team and first-year coach Melissa LaDez.

The Patriots – in just their third season of existence – made major strides in 2014, winning more games this season (eight) than they had in the previous two years combined (four).

The Patriots success hinged on a group of three junior attackers who provided much of the scoring in Hallie West (45 goals, 10 assists), Natalie Barnett (41 goals) and Kelsey Gonzalez (36 goals), but this season was a team

The season started well – with wins over traditional powers Providence and South Meck – but hit a snag as they struggled with four straight losses and seven defeats in their next nine games against some of the state’s strongest teams.

The Independence girls didn’t get rattled, though. The Patriots reeled off four wins in their next six games to earn their first playoff berth, where they beat Cuthbertson, 7-6, to achieve another milestone.

And with the majority of the team returning, this is just the beginning.


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