Lincolnton used a large drop (a 76-yard touchdown reception) of C.J. Wilsonâ€™s ocean of breathtaking plays to come away with a 29-26 victory over Brevard. Up next, a shot at the 2A Championship against the Clinton Darkhorses (11-3) coached by first-year head coach Steve Mallard.
When the Wolves take the field Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, it will mark 11 years since they have been there. In 1993, Lincolnton won its first state championship with a 41-20 win over Burlington Cummings. They returned the following year, this time as favorites, and fell to Wallace-Rose Hill 35-24.
Saturday at noon, they have a chance to exorcise any demons that remain from that heartbreaking loss.
Senior defensive end James Hargrove will look to make an impact slowing Clintonâ€™s run game. Last week, Hargrove was a dominant pass rusher. Saturday, he will need to make his presence known in helping contain Nick Cooper. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
While the Darkhorses havenâ€™t seen much passing this season, Wolves head coach Scott Cloninger isnâ€™t going to tweak his offensive play book to include more passing.
â€œIf you become all pass, people can play the pass better. We want to find that balance weâ€™ve had the past few weeks with the run and the pass,â€ he said.
For those who wondered where Wilsonâ€™s 76-yarder would rank the annals of Lincolnton lore, Cloninger had two other plays that immediately came to mind: a Charles Briggsâ€™ touchdown catch on a fly pattern in 1993 and a 1987 reverse pass from Bobby McLaughlin to Scottie Ramseur that gave the Wolves a 7-6 win over North West Cabarrus.
What may come as a surprise to many was that Cloninger had faith somebody on his explosive offense would come through on that critical drive, trailing 26-22.
â€œEven though they were shutting us down, I still believed we could score because we had already scored twice in the second half, but had them called back,â€ he said. â€œI was just looking for 15 or 20 when we called that play, I wasnâ€™t looking for the homerun ball,â€ he continued.
â€œBut when he sprung it down the sideline, I wasnâ€™t going to turn that down.â€
Defensively Clinton will run a 5-2 (or shade 50) and is led by the linebacker tandem of 6 feet, 215-pound junior Phillip Strickland and 6 feet 1 inch, 190-pound senior Ben Wright, a fact Cloninger is well aware of.
â€œThose are two people we have to block. They make a lot of plays,â€ he said.
Against an effective Wing-T/I-Form offense, Lincolnton will look to play more of a ball-control type game, as the Darkhorses enter Saturdayâ€™s game averaging 25 points a game.
â€œWe want to move the sticks. We want to keep the ball away from them. They have people that can fly, so we have to find a way to keep our defense fresh,â€ Cloninger said.
â€œLast week, a couple of three and outs by our offense put our defense in a bad spot,â€ he added.
Cloninger likens the junior running back duo of Nick Cooper (5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds) and Earle Kemp (5 feet six inches, 145 pounds) to Shelbyâ€™s Arsenio Parks and Tavorris Jolly, only a smaller.
â€œYou just want to contain them and keep them from hitting the big plays. You want them to have to work for every yard they get,â€ Cloninger said.
Cooper is averaging 7.6 yards a carry and is just 19 yards away from 2,000 on the season. Kemp also topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Stopping the Darkhorsesâ€™ rushing attack will be the Wolvesâ€™ top priority, as they have only passed the ball 61 times in the entire season.
â€œTheyâ€™ve had a lot of success running the football and thatâ€™s what they want to do. Weâ€™re going to have to play a solid defensive game to keep them out of their rhythm,â€ Cloninger said.
In the three films he has watched, against East Duplin, Farmville Central and Northside, Cloninger said Clinton passed the ball just 15 times combined, but he warns itâ€™s not because they canâ€™t pass the ball.
â€œTheyâ€™ve got a decent pass game, but they run the ball so well they havenâ€™t had to use the passing game. Thatâ€™s the scary part,â€ Cloninger said.
Lincolnton watched film on Clinton Monday, then had a â€œgood practice,â€ Tuesday in the eyes of Cloninger.
He believes how his team reacts to traveling a couple of hours, the early-start time and the big atmosphere will likely decide the game.
â€œIt is a bigger venue, but itâ€™s the same size field we play on at home. There is nothing in the stands thatâ€™s going to matter. Itâ€™s what happens between the lines,â€ Cloninger said.
by John Mark Brooks