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Local independent schools get playoff bids

Feb. 13—The Grace Christian men will not have the eyeballs of college scouts and pundits all over them when the NCISAA 3A state playoffs start tonight. But they finished the regular season strong, and could be a darkhorse in the state championship tournament.

That strong finish means that the Crusaders will open the first playoff run of their 3A era at home, and that the team's seniors will get at least one more appearance at the Torgerson Gym, after missing out on their Senior Night game last Friday.

The Crusaders went on a tear at the end of the regular season, winning six straight games in an 11-day period to advance to No. 11 in the MaxPreps NCISAA 3A power ratings. Grace lost 92-90 at Eastern Randolph on Thursday night to end the streak, but ER is a highly rated NCHSAA 1A public school and this did not seriously damage the Crusaders' position. Grace remained at No. 11 despite the loss.

The team was slated to play one final game on Friday night against Riverside Christian of Fayetteville, but the Royals called Grace late on Thursday and cancelled the game. Grace tried to find another opponent for Senior Night on short notice, but could not.

While the NCISAA seeds only the top eight teams in the field, they try to reward the other invited teams by giving teams that are playing well at season's end a home game in the first round. The Crusaders (17-12) were paired up with Wake Christian (19-10). The teams will play tonight at 6:30. Should the Crusaders win, they will either host Arendell Parrott (5-17), or more likely, visit sixth-seeded GRACE Christian of Raleigh (25-7), on Thursday night. Parrott and GRACE are playing each other tonight.

Grace and Wake Christian have basically identical power ratings and played many common opponents this season. Both teams faced Thales-Apex, Ravenscroft, New Life Camp, the South Wake Sabres, and St. David's during the regular season, but never played each other. The Bulldogs went 7-2 against those common foes, while the Crusaders were 5-1. Wake split two games with the Sabres and lost by three at home to St. David's, but beat them on the road. The Crusaders beat both those teams at home in their only meeting, but lost at Ravenscroft, a team Wake beat. Both games with the Ravens occurred all the way back in the week of Thanksgiving.

The teams are essentially dead-even and this could be a very entertaining contest. A sign of just how close they are is that both teams defeated New Life Camp by the identical score of 76-48 one week apart in January.

Lee Christian also received its opening-round assignments for the state playoffs. The Falcon men play tonight at 6 p.m., but at least will open the playoffs at home, and against a very familiar opponent. The NCISAA doesn't consider conference affiliation in its playoff pairings, and teams from the same conference frequently meet. Lee (13-10) will host Mid-Carolina Conference rival Cresset (4-13) in the first round. This is a matchup no one on the Falcons will mind. They played the Eagles twice in a six-day span in late January, winning 65-53 here and 70-52 at Cresset.

A win for the Falcons means a second-round date with sixth-seed North Hills Christian (14-15) on Thursday night in Salisbury. Lee also played them twice during the regular season, but lost both games.

The Lady Falcons are going to Salisbury tonight to play North Hills in their opening game. Lee lost to the Eagles 53-36 back on Jan. 4, but played them much tougher when the teams met a second time at North Hills three weeks later, dropping that game 52-44. The Lady Falcons will have to be that much better again to earn a spot in the second round.

The winner plays at Cresset (16-2) in Thursday's second round. Cresset, despite being ranked No. 2 in 1A by MaxPreps, was dropped to fifth by the selection committee even though its only loss since before Thanksgiving was at undefeated Grace Christian.

The aforementioned Grace women (27-0) are the top seed in the 3A bracket and will not play until Saturday's quarterfinals. See the accompanying story on their most recent game for more information.