By RYAN HERMAN
For decades Lincolnton was the only Lincoln County varsity football team to win a state championship, but that streak ended when East Lincoln won its first last year.
Consider the Wolves very, very hungry.
Lincolnton, which won NCHSAA state 2A titles in 1993 and 2007, and has played for three more, enters the 2013 season with the desire to put itself back on top as the best high school football team in the county.
Before any pads have been worn and any scrimmages held, the Mustangs already have a leg up on that right this year as the defending 2A champs currently hold the state’s top spot atop the NCPreps.com 2A preseason poll.
The Wolves’ hunger isn’t out of jealously or animosity, but rather a desire to be top dogs once again.
“They’re the king of the hill right now. We want to be king of the hill, and right now East Lincoln has all the bragging rights,” said longtime Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger. “Their chest is thrown up and they have every right to be because they’re the defending state champions. Does that bring a little bit more intensity to the words when you say East Lincoln? I’d say, yes it does.”
Cloninger said “about 76” showed up for the official opening of practice last week, 34 for the varsity squad.
Although Cloninger won’t –– and will never –– proclaim a state championship just yet, he’s liked what he’s seen through three practices so far.
“We’re real happy with the attitude and shape some of them has come back in,” he said.
Lincolnton, which opens the season Aug. 23 at home against North Lincoln, is coming off a year that, while many teams would have liked to have had, was disappointing by the Wolves’ standards.
The program added to its county-best streak of playoff appearances by making consecutive trip No. 13 last season. But at seven wins the Wolves won just half as many games as they had the previous two seasons, when they won 14 games in back-to-back years.
Cloninger’s reasoning for the decline was simple: Youth.
“We were so young last year we were changing diapers,” he said. “And we’re still young. A lot of our better players, skill people, our lineman, are juniors. The majority of our people were just so young.
“Youth just caught up with us. It was very difficult.”
While seven wins may not be the norm –– Lincolnton has just 17 seasons with seven wins or fewer since 1971 –– Cloninger isn’t expecting it to carry over this year.
“Seven wins, that’s not par for Lincolnton High School,” he said. “We had some positive things that happened (last season) and now we’re a year older.”
One of those players who is a year older is senior fullback Justice Charles.
Charles, who rushed for 283 yards and four touchdowns last year, is hungry to help his team get back to the top.
“We lost by like five points to (East Lincoln), so that definitely motivates us,” Charles said. “When we play them we’re going to expect to win. Those are the games we want to win.
“Every week we win, we get more and more confidence and then we feel like can’t nobody beat us.”
The Mustangs got the best of Lincolnton with a 13-8 victory last September –– the first time East Lincoln had defeated the Wolves since winning 31-14 in 2009. That, along with winning a state title, has added to a rivalry that dates back a long time.
“We feel like Lincolnton has been one of the better teams in our area and now East Lincoln has stepped up and won a state championship,” Cloninger said.
“That draws a little interest to the Lincolnton crowd.”