By RYAN HERMAN
VALE –– After studying West Lincoln for hours, Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger felt he needed to reach into his old bag of tricks to pull out a win.
The gamble paid off.
The Wolves dominated the first half behind some calls out of Cloninger’s old playbook, and held on late to defeat the Rebels 21-13 Friday in the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference opener for both teams.
Lincolnton, in the I-formation now for three games, was able to throw several new looks at West Lincoln and hand the Rebels their first loss of the year.
Although not insurmountable, the Wolves’ 14-0 lead at the break was enough to extend their streak of recent dominance over West Lincoln to seven games.
“West Lincoln’s a great team, and I still think they’re going to win a lot of games in this conference. They had everything going their way (heading into the game),” Cloninger said. “We felt like we had to go back to our old ways when I was a little younger and take some chances, and things fell into place.”
Right off the bat.
Lincolnton (3-2, 1-0), which improved to 34-6 all-time against West Lincoln (4-1, 0-1), used a big first half in which it outgained the home team 173-56, ran 30 plays to West Lincoln’s 11, and owned the time of possession 16:24 to 7:36 to go up two scores at halftime.
With the right mixture of play calling –– difference of direction and using the run to set up the pass –– the Wolves came up big on third downs. In the first half alone, they converted their first seven third-down plays, none aided by penalties.
Both scores in the first 24 minutes came on third down, and both were TD passes.
Following a 7-yard loss, Jordon Easter hit Quinlyn Harris on third-and-goal from the 11 to end a game-opening 15-play, 70-yard drive that took 8:34 off the clock.
After forcing West Lincoln into a three-and-out on its first drive, wideout Nick Hatchett hit Zoauntarrious Brunt on a 4-yard scoring pass on a well-executed end-around –– one of several plays Cloninger pulled out of the closet –– on third-and-3.
By the 9:14 mark of the second quarter, Lincolnton had ran 23 plays to the Rebels’ three, had 140 yards to West Lincoln’s minus-1 and led 14-0.
“If you don’t try those things; I just think you have to try them ever once in a while,” Cloninger said. “If you make it, good. If you don’t, say, ‘Play defense boys, get after it.’”
The Wolves’ defense did just that on West Lincoln’s opening drive.
Division-I recruit Darian Roseboro, who received a formal offer from UCLA on Thursday and made an official visit to Ohio State over the weekend, Cloninger said, went through the middle untouched on West Lincoln’s first play from scrimmage and hit SD-7 rushing leader Daniel Davila in the backfield for a 3-yard loss.
After the Rebels’ three-and-out, they spent most of the night running away from Roseboro and it worked. They reached the Lincolnton 1 after starting at their own 41 on their second drive, but were stopped short on fourth-and-goal by Easter and Roseboro.
The drive did give West Lincoln some momentum as it turned the tables slightly in the second half, outscoring the Wolves 13-7 and outgaining them 157-79. But a missed extra point late and a pair of 15-yard penalties on Lincolnton’s final drive did it in.
“We’re very, very fortunate to come out of here alive. When we got them down 14-nothing, it seemed easy, but I knew … they were going to battle back and fight until the very end,” Cloninger said. “That’s one of the better West Lincoln teams I’ve seen in a long time, and the West Lincoln community should be proud of them.”
It was also a different looking team in the second half.
West Lincoln took the opening drive of the half 54 yards for a score, ending when senior quarterback Miguel Corella scampered 30 yards to the end zone with 7:28 to play in the third quarter –– its longest play of the night.
The Rebels then stopped Lincolnton on its next drive, and for the first time held it to a three-and-out when Chavis Russell was tackled by Todric Anderson for a 2-yard loss after a short dump pass from Easter.
West Lincoln turned it over on downs its next drive, then blocked a Wolves 33-yard field goal attempt to start the fourth quarter.
Another empty drive each commenced before the Rebels pulled within a point with 5:32 to play on Corella’s 11-yard TD run, set up by his 20-yard pass to Charles Mack George.
Ivan Cavilla’s extra-point attempt was just left of the upright –– possibly deflected –– and the score stood at 14-13.
“We came out slow and we didn’t get a very good start. We didn’t touch the ball until 3 minutes to go in the first quarter. We didn’t wrap up, we didn’t tackle well, we didn’t do those fundamental things that (lead to a win),” West Lincoln coach Tom Said said. “Once we got settled in and got those fundamentals we started to play.”
But the fundamentals went bye-bye on Lincolnton’s final drive.
West Lincoln had two 15-yard penalties on the drive, the last on a third-down play that would have forced the Wolves to punt.
The mental lapses led to a 19-yard TD run by Roseboro and a 21-13 lead with 26 seconds left.
“I talked about that all week long. The mistakes, the penalties. You’re not going to beat a good team, a team like Lincolnton, with unsportsmanlike penalties and personal fouls and things like that, and that happened,” Sain said. “That’s my fault as a coach. I’ve got to do a better job at that. If that’s happening, it’s because of me. I’m letting it happen.”
Taylor Long returned the ensuing kickoff to his own 49. After an incompletion Daniel Schesny went 22 yards to set up first-and-10 at the Lincolnton 27.
Corella’s Hail Mary attempt was intercepted in the end zone by Brunt as time expired, but a flag was thrown for roughing the passer, giving the Rebels a free untimed down.
With George under center and Corella out on the wing, George connected with Corella on the free down, but he was brought down at the 3, dashing West Lincoln’s hopes of a comeback.
Corella led all rushers with 83 yards on nine carries. Davila, who was averaging a league-best 144 yards per game heading in, was held to 42 yards on 15 carries and kept out of the end zone for the first time this year.
Easter ran for 44 yards and was 8 of 9 passing for 94 yards and a score. Russell had 49 yards on 20 touches.
“We just came up so short. A couple penalties right there (at the end) that shouldn’t happen. We had a chance. I was real proud that they never quit. It was just a little too little, too late,” Sain said.
Cloninger, who said he watched roughly 25 hours of film on the Rebels last week, was able to breathe a sigh of relief as Corella was tackled short of the goal line.
“That’s the life of a coach,” he said. “I’m very happy to get out of here with a win.”