By RYAN HERMAN
If Lincolnton gets to play for a state title, it will have had one tough road to get there.
The ninth-seeded Wolves (9-4) have already played two teams that, between them, have nine NCHSAA state championships since it went to four classifications in 1972.
Today, the Wolves will face a team that has won 18 NCHSAA state championships since 1930.
“It’s been a good run, and I think our kids are looking for another big challenge because it is a huge challenge in (playing) Reidsville,” Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger said. “We’re playing programs in the state with so much tradition. We’re playing a Who’s Who of high school football in the state of North Carolina.”
In each game, including tonight’s, the Wolves have been, according to seeding, the underdog.
They knocked off No. 8 Thomasville, which has seven state titles, 14-7 in the first round. Then they booted top-seeded Winston-Salem Carver with a 28-27 win last week. The Rams (11-2) are seeded fourth in the 2A West bracket, and won their latest state title in 2009 when they defeated Newton-Conover 28-6.
But the road doesn’t get any easier. If Lincolnton can pull off yet another upset tonight, it’ll have to travel to either perennial and local power Shelby (four state titles) or the state’s top-ranked 2A program in North Rowan (one state runner-up) for a shot at playing in Chapel Hill on Dec. 14.
Is this the toughest road the Wolves have had to take to a possible state championship?
“Most definitely. Just look at the teams,” Cloninger said. “How many state championships are between them?”
Twenty-seven and, if the Wolves win tonight, counting.
Success a surprise?
Despite the fact that it’s lost just one game on the field this year –– to a 3A Gastonia Forestview team that is also still playing –– head coach Mike Byus is somewhat surprised his East Lincoln football team is still alive.
Not that he thinks the Mustangs don’t have the talent –– or that he feels lucky to still be playing after last week’s 42-14 much-closer-than-the-score win over Maiden –– but because his team is so young at the skill positions.
Their starting quarterback is a sophomore. Their starting running backs are a junior and a sophomore. Their top receiver statistically is a freshman.
“When you have that much youth out there, you’re going to have some times where you struggle,” Byus said, referring to last week’s four-turnover win over the Blue Devils. “We’ve got a lot of good football players. Of course (quarterback) Chazz (Surratt) is a difference maker, and that helps lift those around you a little bit.”
Defensively, though, is where the Mustangs have their senior leadership, and it’s shown in yet another deep state playoff run.
“They surprise me every week. I don’t think we’re always the most athletic team on the field. I don’t think we’re always the fastest team on the field. But defensively, they fit where they’re supposed to and play great team defense,” Byus said.
Pick that ‘D’
The Mustangs (9-4), who travel to Monroe (11-2) today for a third round game, are trying to play for a state championship for the third time since 2008.
Of those three teams –– 2008, 2012 and this year –– Byus said each team’s defense had different strengths and weaknesses, but that all three have had one thing in common: A solid defensive line.
This year the Mustangs are allowing an average of 237.4 yards and 14.9 points per game. Last year’s averaged 261.8 yards and 16.7 points in its run to the NCHSAA state 2A championship.
The 2A state runner-up team in 2008 allowed an average of 14 points even.
“Record-wise (2012) was the best we’ve had. Five of them are back from that team. Between last year’s, this year’s and ’08’s, I think those three defenses had different strengths and weaknesses. The common denominator between all of them is phenomenal defensive line play,” Byus said.
Three of the four varsity football teams in Lincoln County made the state playoffs, and two of them are still alive. It is also one of two counties left represented in the state 2A-2AA playoffs with two teams still alive, joining Union County (Monroe, Monroe Parkwood).
There are plenty of well-rounded players in Lincoln County, but Cloninger, who’s been in his position longer than any of the other three coaches, believes the success comes from a knowledgeable group of coaches and all four schools.
“I’ll tell you what helps: There’s a good group of coaches in Lincoln County,” he said. “I think that’s probably the key thing right now with the success.”