The conference formerly known as the Tri-9, Tri-8 and so on has often fluctuated in its role as a power conference in the 4A East.
In the last four years, the conference has sent one team to the state final and another to the East final. But in the other two years, the conference has been eliminated in the second round and the third round.
One fewer team in the Southwest Wake Athletic 4A Conference also means one fewer playoff team. The N.C. High School Athletic Association changed its automatic-playoff spot in 64-team brackets (basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball) from “half-plus-one” to just “half.”
The fifth and sixth teams from the SWAC will still have a shot at one of the six 4A East wild-card spots.
Apex returns to the SWAC, going 18-5 (15-1).
Junior setter Ally Beckman (436 assists, 124 digs) has already verbally committed to Georgia Tech. Juniors Anna Patrick (41 blocks) and Chasey Gelston (198 assists) and senior Bri Belicic (240 kills, 196 digs) also return for the Cougars, who bring back just three seniors.
Green Hope (19-4, 14-2) brings back two returning starters: senior setter Caroline Neideffer (792 assists, 67 aces), an Appalachian State recruit, and junior hitter Margo Ruffieux (259 kills).
Coach Karl Redelfs is 60-9 in three seasons.
Junior Haley Bidgood also returns for the Falcons.
Holly Springs, under new coach Emily Rice, returns four starters from a 15-6 (13-3) team, including juniors Jaclyn Brewington (206 kills, 195 digs), Mackenzie Reaves (110 kills, 226 assists) and senior middle blocker Kaelyn Dyson (160 kills, 157 blocks).
Fuquay-Varina (13-9, 9-7) has improved its standing in the league from eighth in 2010 to fourth last year. The Bengals are led by libero Abby Findley, a two-time all-conference pick committed to Campbell. Second-team all-conference player Saraya Klink and co-captain Alex Barnett also return for Fuquay.
Cary (11-10, 7-9) loses just three seniors from last year, but one – N&O All-Metro selection Rachel Weisz – was deemed “irreplaceable” by coach Phillip Goodloe, who is entering his 10th season. Seniors Olivia Moore and Raechel Brooks are among the returners.
Middle Creek (9-14, 6-10) graduated just two players, including N&O All-Metro selection Ashley Battle – who is playing with one of the collegiate Team USA squads. The Mustangs’ leading returner is second-team all-conference pick junior Katie McCullough (220 kills, 63 aces).
Panther Creek (5-15, 2-14) returns senior Katherine Kruse, who was injured much of last season. The Catamounts also return senior Sydnee Robinson and welcome a new coach in Lindsey O’Connell, an N.C. State student who was the conference player of the year in 2009 at Green Hope.
Athens Drive (3-16, 2-14) brings back two-time all-conference selection Rachel Kinsey, a senior, and everyone else. The Jaguars didn’t have a senior last year and started four sophomores.
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps