By RYAN HERMAN
Tonight’s game between county rivals Lincolnton and West Lincoln has garnered so much attention and hype that it has received its own nickname.
To the teams, though, it’s just another game.
The Wolves (2-2) head west on N.C. 27 tonight to take on the undefeated Rebels (4-0) in a game that is being billed as the “Showdown in Vale Town.”
T-shirts have been made. Advance tickets are being sold. More than 5,000 are expected to attend. And, all the while, Lincolnton and West Lincoln just want to play football.
“I want it to be another game for us. I know it’s big, but I want every game to be this big,” Rebels coach Tom Sain said. “I want all our games to be this exciting. That’s the stuff I didn’t get to experience when I was here.”
When Sain was a player at West Lincoln from 1979-82, he never experienced a win over Lincolnton, or playing in a game of the magnitude or hype that’s surrounding tonight’s. In fact, it wasn’t until he went to play for Western Carolina that he experienced the big-game atmosphere, he said.
Tonight’s game is garnering as much hype as the 2010 meeting between the two at Lincolnton, when the Wolves were 8-0 and the Rebels were 7-1.
Lincolnton won easily 35-14.
“It was as close to a college football game as I’ve ever been to in my life,” Sain said, “and that’s what I want for these guys. That’s what I want these guys to feel every week.”
While the Wolves own a 33-6 all-time advantage in the series, according to the program they sell at their home games, Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger, who has only lost to West Lincoln once in his tenure, sees his team as the underdog tonight.
“I’ve preached it every day. They’re bigger than us, they’re faster than us, they’re playing at home. In my opinion, they should be a couple-touchdown favorite (and) I believe it,” Cloninger said. “I’ve been preaching to them all week that they need to understand that they’ve got to play. It’s a new season. All those past wins we’ve got don’t mean a thing. This is a new game, new day, and you’ve got to play to win.”
The Rebels enter tonight’s Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference opener with the league’s second-best rushing attack at 302.8 yards per game, unofficially. They also have the league’s top rusher in senior Daniel Davila at 144 yards per game.
West Lincoln is ranked ahead of Lincolnton in total offense (353.8 yards per game to 228.3) and total defense (249 yards allowed per game to 291.8).
Although the Rebels haven’t defeated the Wolves since they won 21-12 at Lincolnton on Oct. 13, 2006, Cloninger said he feels the pressure of needing to win tonight.
“I think it’s a toss-up, in my opinion. I know they’re bigger than us, their speed looks very similar (to us), they may even be a touch faster than us. There’s a little pressure to win this game. There’s no advantage,” he said.
“We’re going to have to go up there and play mistake-free football; go in with the attitude that we’ve got to play our best game. We can’t make mistakes –– can’t make mental mistakes or physical mistakes. If something bad happens, overcome it mentally. If something good happens, build on it.”
As Cloninger may feel the weight to win, Sain is so nervous about the magnitude and the anticipated atmosphere that he hasn’t slept much at all this week, he said.
Lincolnton knows what it’s like to play in a big-time game. After all, the Wolves have more NCHSAA state titles (two) than the Rebels do playoff victories (zero), and Lincolnton has an equal amount of state title game appearances (five) as West Lincoln does trips to the postseason.
But again, Sain is trying to downplay tonight’s game as much as he can.
“It makes me nervous” Sain said. “Coach Cloninger, he’s been in these games. He’s been in bigger games. He’s been in state championships. Oh my gosh, I probably wouldn’t sleep for a week. I haven’t slept for a couple nights.”
“We don’t talk about it,” Sain said of the past. “We come out here and we talk about being us. We talk about being the team that we are and doing the things that we do and getting better. That’s what we hope puts that out. This is a new year, every year’s a different year. You’ve got to continue to strive to be better every week.”
EAST LINCOLN at BANDYS
The Mustangs travel to Catawba tonight to face a long time rival for the first time in a conference game since both were members of the old SD-7 from 1977-80.
East Lincoln (3-1), coming off a 44-27 loss at Gastonia Forestview, sports the league’s best offense at moving the football at 405.8 yards and per game while the Trojans (2-2) are sixth at 338.8 yards a contest.
Defensively, though, is where Bandys excels. Although it has given up 64 total points in its last two games, Bandys held St. Stephens to 16 points and Fred T. Foard to a safety in a 2-0 start. The Trojans are second behind Maiden in the SD-7 in overall defense at 244.8 yards per game allowed, and first in pass defense at just 182 total yards passing allowed on the year.
With sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt at the helm, the Mustangs sport the league’s second-best passing attack behind Maiden at 191 yards per game.
East Lincoln has won six of the last seven meetings, with the Trojans’ last win coming in 2011.
SOUTH IREDELL at NORTH LINCOLN
South Iredell –– the cream of the North Piedmont 3A/4A crop –– enters tonight’s game with a potent offense and what has been, up to this point, an unbreakable defense.
The Vikings (4-0) have a balanced offensive attack –– 697 yards rushing, unofficially, and 599 yards passing –– and are averaging 38 points per game. Their defense has yielded just 27 total points in four games.
North Lincoln (1-3) is coming off its first win of the season, a 41-28 drubbing of Bessemer City on Sept. 13, in which it had its best offensive game of the year with 328 total yards. Knights running back Richard Jackson is tied for sixth in the league in rushing at 291 total yards and six touchdowns, just behind South Iredell’s Michael Fisher, who has 316 yards and four TDs in four games.
The teams were members of the old Southern Piedmont 1A/2A Conference from 2005-08. South Iredell holds the all-time series advantage 3-1.