By RYAN HERMAN
Where winning a state title is the goal year-in and year-out, a third round finish in the playoffs for Lincolnton High’s football team isn’t something to get excited about.
But with the majority of the team returning, next season is.
The Wolves, who fell 13-10 at Reidsville in the third round of the NCHSAA state 2A playoffs last week, were a handful of plays away from playing for a regional title this Friday. But while the ball bounced the Rams’ way a few more times than Lincolnton’s –– head coach Scott Cloninger said, “It just wasn’t meant to be.” –– reaching the third round and beyond in 2014 should be expected.
“We came up short of our goal, but I think it’s a good springboard for this young team for next year,” Cloninger said.
Lincolnton (9-5), which finished third in the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference and made it at least three rounds deep in the playoffs for the seventh time in Cloninger’s 14-year tenure, is expected to return 19 of the 30 players listed on its final roster of the season.
Of those 19, two of the Wolves’ top three rushers will be back (quarterback Jordon Easter and running back Chavis Russell), along with their top two receivers (Quinlyn Harris, Nick Hatchett). They’ll also return the bulk of their offensive and defensive lines, their kicker (Graham Willis), and Darian Roseboro, their prized Division I recruit.
“We look forward to the future at Lincolnton High School because it’s bright with all these returners that we’ve got coming back,” Cloninger said.
While those players, plus a lot of others, will be a year older and more experienced next year, their youth and inexperience were, at times, Lincolnton’s own worst enemy this year.
They weren’t able to effectively execute Cloninger’s option-read offense, and that led to a 1-2 start. But they were willing to learn a new offense, and once they figured out the I-formation the Wolves won six of their last eight regular season games.
Although Lincolnton’s regular season ended with a dud –– a 42-14 loss at Maiden that Cloninger still doesn’t have an explanation for –– it put the loss behind it and made some noise as a nine-seed in the playoffs.
The Wolves knocked off No. 8 Thomasville 14-7, then went to top-seeded Winston-Salem Carver and beat it 28-27.
Lincolnton missed a fourth-quarter field goal that would have tied it at 13-all at Reidsville, then had a big pass play nullified with a procedure penalty that cost it a first down in Rams territory.
Like life, playing football is all about learning and growing up.
“Those things happen,” said Cloninger of his team’s misfortunes down the stretch at Reidsville. “I just feel like we’re so young. We’ve got so many young players that just did their best and improved a whole lot during the year and listened and learned. They were coachable. You can have a team that’s not coachable and have a mess, but they were coachable.”
“We struggled early, played well mid-season, then at the end of the year we struggled a little with Maiden and then we turned this thing around,” Cloninger added. “We’re playing Thanksgiving weekend and there’s a lot of people that would love to be playing Thanksgiving weekend, and we accomplished it.”