Game of the Week: Lincolnton (5-1, 2-0) vs. East Lincoln (4-2, 2-0)
This weekâ€™s match-up between the Lincolnton Wolves and the East Lincoln Mustangs may be the best conference game of the season for either team, and if not, it certainly has been the most hyped clash for any team in the county so far.
Lincolnton is on top of the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A Conference, in addition to the Wolvesâ€™ top ranking for the third week in a row in the AP North Carolina 2A prep poll.
East Lincoln is not far behind in the conference standings, with a 4-2 record and two wins in the league. The Mustangsâ€™ losses, which came in nonconference play, were by a total of six points.
The Wolves are on a four-game hot streak, most recently handing a 49-0 beat down to Highland Tech. The Mustangs have won two-straight, both conference games, against Bessemer City and North Lincoln.
The storied rivalry between Lincolnton and East Lincoln has often been the yardstick by which to measure which team will win the conference crown for the season. Since 2000 the teams have played 13 times, and have met twice in the playoffs. Lincolnton has won eight of those games, including a five-year streak from 2001-2005.
The teams met in the playoffs in 2007, when the Wolves defeated the Mustangs in the regional round on their way to the state title. East Lincoln won 24-7 in 2008 in the second round of playoffs, while on its way to a loss to
Reidsville in the state title game.
Lincolnton head coach Scott Cloninger was quick to acknowledge that this weekâ€™s game may be the toughest conference game the Wolves will have all season.
“As of right now, I would say that East Lincoln is the second-best team weâ€™ve played this year, behind South Point,” Cloninger said.
“They can score from anywhere on the field. Theyâ€™re averaging more points than us right now. And theyâ€™re not giving up a lot of points. The interesting thing is, I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s going to be a high-scoring game or a low-scoring game; it could go either way.”
The Mustangs have averaged 42.83 points per game, to Lincolntonâ€™s 40.33 points per game. The Lincolnton defenders, on the other hand, have allowed two touchdowns on average, to East Lincolnâ€™s 20.50 points.
East Lincoln head coach Mike Byus said the Mustangs will have to cope with an offense that has an incredible level of talent.
“Theyâ€™re loaded, but weâ€™ll just do the best we can,” he said.
“We realize they have an accumulation of talent thatâ€™s pretty good, and weâ€™ll have to be on our A game to be able to just stay in it. It doesnâ€™t matter what offensive set they get in. They have an athlete who can hurt you in every position.”
The Mustangs have the leading rusher, passer and receiver in the county, in senior running back Marcus McDowell, junior quarterback Garrett Young and senior wide receiver Antwaine McLean.
McDowell is the only 1,000-yard rusher in the county with 1,037 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Young has thrown for 1,135 yards on 67 completions for 13 touchdowns. McLean has handled 21 of those passes, for 344 yards and five touchdowns. McDowell also has 316 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions.
“That we have those numbers just speaks to our balance. … We try to be balanced with the run and the pass,” Byus said.
“We probably have seven different receivers who have catches throughout the year or who could have catches in any game.”
Cloninger acknowledged McDowellâ€™s skill at running back, and said the Wolves would try to control the tempo of the game to keep the ball out of his hands.
“We hope to minimize what McDowell can do to us,” Cloninger said.
“Weâ€™re going to have people who are going to be around him and weâ€™ll have 22 eyes on him at all times. Thatâ€™s what you do with great athletes. We know heâ€™s the engine in that locomotive and heâ€™s going to make that team go, but weâ€™ll try to slow him down some.”
Lincolnton running back Dee Littlejohn has 560 yards so far this season, and added three touchdowns against Highland Tech. Michael Cunningham, Khalid Poole and Patrick Rendleman all have more than 100 yards rushing for the Wolves.
Lincolnton got the ball into the hands of 15 different running backs against Highland Tech.
Rendleman has thrown for nearly 500 yards this season, finding receiver Jonathan Gidney five times for all of his passing touchdowns.
Byus described the game between Lincolnton and East Lincoln as a “healthy rivalry.”
“Itâ€™s always a competitive game between the two schools, and for the most part, itâ€™s always a game that has a pretty good level of sportsmanship,” he said.
“Itâ€™s one of those rivalries that the kids are excited about playing in, and no matter what the outcome, the kids will talk about this particular game for years to come.”
West Lincoln (3-3, 2-0) vs. Cherryville (2-4,1-1)
The West Lincoln Rebels are coming off of a big conference win over Lake Norman Charter 35-20, their second conference win of the season. The Cherryville Ironmen gave the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets their first win of the season last week, a 20-14 game on Cherryvilleâ€™s home turf.
If the Rebels pull out a win tonight, they will be tied for the top spot in the conference with the winner of the Lincolnton-East Lincoln game, but West Lincoln head coach Tom Sain said he is focused solely on taking his team above the .500 mark overall.
“We try to just take one game at a time, and we want to play each week and play the best we can,” Sain said.
“When you take care of the little things each week the big things come into place. Weâ€™re glad weâ€™re 2-0 in the conference, and weâ€™d like to continue that success, but that doesnâ€™t come without work and preparation, so we want to make sure we do that to get to where we need to be.”
Sain said the Cherryville offense works out of a two-back set, and runs option, midline and veer plays.
“Their most vulnerable player is their quarterback, Darius Harris,” Sain said.
“Darieous Taylor, their running back, wants to carry the ball too. So itâ€™s about 60-40 that the quarterback will keep it. They also have some big linemen up front, a couple of 300-lb. guys. We donâ€™t have anybody that size, over 275, we donâ€™t even have a 300-pounder on the team. Hopefully we can use our quickness to our advantage.”
Nose guard Dylan Davis is back on the roster for the Rebels, after missing several games with a leg bruise. Quarterback Nick Fisher, whose strained ligament in his throwing hand limited the Rebelsâ€™ pass attack against Lake Norman Charter, is healthy as well.
There are no other injured players on West Lincolnâ€™s roster.
“This is probably the first time, since the first week of the season that everyone is healthy,” Sain said.
The Ironman defense runs both a four-man front and a five-man front. The Rebels have seen both sets in their opponents so far this year.
“Theyâ€™re probably going to cover us man-to man with their defensive backs, and up front theyâ€™re going to tilt their linemen in at different angles,” Sain said.
“Thatâ€™s tough for an offensive lineman, when your defensive man doesnâ€™t come straight at you. It makes your blocks a little tougher, and weâ€™ll have to be on top of that.”
Sain said he expected Cherryville to be fired up after losing to a winless team last week.
“That will be a big thing, that loss, theyâ€™re going to come out hungry,” he said.
“Cherryville is going to come out and theyâ€™ll be ready to play. Thatâ€™s something we canâ€™t take lightly.”
North Lincoln (0-6, 0-2) vs. Highland Tech (0-5, 0-2)
Either the North Lincoln Knights or the Highland Tech Rams will walk away with their first win of the season tonight. The Rams lost their three nonconference games to private schools, and took their two conference losses from West Lincoln and Lincolnton.
The Knights have had one of the toughest schedules in the county, facing Maiden, Bunker Hill and Bandys in nonconference play.
North Lincoln head coach Zach Bevilacqua said he feels the odds are good for the Knights tonight.
“We have to get a win in a football game, and by records and film it looks like this will be our best opportunity to get that,” he said.
“Our kids need something to feel good about. Itâ€™s tough to come out every day and practice football and not be successful. Itâ€™s not like we do practices with any less intensity because weâ€™re not winning.”
Despite a difficult season, Bevilacqua again reiterated his playersâ€™ perseverance and toughness.
“Our kids have been outstanding as far as their response to adversity,” he said.
“They come out and they work their tails off. They take it seriously, but have fun at the same time.”
A perfect example of that perseverance came last week in North Lincolnâ€™s 47-7 loss to East Lincoln:
Backup quarterback Zach Wallace was tackled in the backfield on the third play of the game and broke his ankle. He stayed on the field, visibly hobbling on several plays, and finished out the game.
The Knights continue to use multiple offensive sets, and hope that will keep Highland Tech off-balance.
“I think with that multiplicity we are going to make Highland Tech think and cover a lot of open spaces,” Bevilacqua said.
“Hopefully we will catch them out of position at times and make some positive plays happen.”
North Lincolnâ€™s defensive scheme involves specific applications of pressure from the linebackers and defensive backs, in an effort to cause mistakes for the Rams.
Bevilacqua was frank in describing the absolute necessity for North Lincoln to establish a viable rushing attack.
“Iâ€™ve been very hard on my offensive line and running backs for the last couple of weeks,” he said.
“Weâ€™ve been working under the principle that we can only get better running the ball. David Spinner has been a pleasant surprise in the running game and I feel like he really is pushing Landon Bullock to be a better runner also.”
Spinner ran for 28 yards on six carries against East Lincoln, including a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
North Lincoln is also contending with an inexperienced offensive line.
“Our offensive line is big, but they are primarily young,” Bevilacqua said.
“Justin Knight, Chase Stehling and Jeremy Brotherton are all sophomores and Colton Beard is a freshman.
“Theyâ€™re just starting to learn what it takes to play varsity-level high school football and really learning how to bang up front.”
North Lincolnâ€™s defense has improved since the beginning of the season, with the linebackers and secondary logging several pass breakups and tackles for losses against East Lincoln.
“The last couple of weeks the defensive coaching staff have really just been focusing on the basics: doing tackling circuits and timing blitzes,” Bevilacqua said.
“I feel like that is starting to pay off. I do feel like the backs and secondary are stepping up, not because of some new scheme or players, but because theyâ€™re mentally getting to the point that they realize you have to be tough and want to hit people playing defense.
“Theyâ€™re also having more fun playing rather than going out like machines. As coaches we keep telling them, â€˜Celebrate with each other, have fun and play confident and everything will be OK.â€™ ”
MICHAEL GEBELEIN, Sports Writer