By RYAN HERMAN
PUMPKIN CENTER –– Regardless of what the outcome was on Friday nights, Chase Stehling feels North Lincoln’s football team worked harder Monday through Thursday than most all the others.
Western Carolina felt Stehling was doing the same thing, and that’s why it offered him a spot with a Division I program.
Stehling signed his national letter of intent on Wednesday to join the Catamounts on a partial scholarship, and has also signed to participate in their track and field program, making him the first athlete from North Lincoln to sign for two different sports, Principal Mitch Sherrill said.
Stehling will take part in the field events (shot put, discus, javelin and hammer), and will work his way into what he hopes is a starting spot on the Catamounts’ offensive line once he arrives in Cullowhee this summer.
“It wasn’t just me. I felt like it was a bunch of my team, too, pushing each other in practice and in the weight room,” Stehling said. “It didn’t really show on the record, but I’d argue that North Lincoln was one of the hardest-working teams in this area.”
So was Stehling.
In four years of North Lincoln football, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior played through three different head coaches, four losing seasons, and never had the chance to play in a postseason game.
But that never deterred him, he said.
When he’d see teammates begin to lose interest as the losses piled up, Stehling was the one who got them back on track. When the weight room became more and more empty, Stehling was the one to fill it back up. When the sweat that fell in August wasn’t falling in October, Stehling was the one who turned up the heat.
“Once you get to that point in the season when your record’s not where you want it to be you see people, they don’t seem to care anymore. I would tell them, ‘If you’re on this field, you’re in this locker room, you’re going to care. After this season’s over, you’re all going to get back into the weight room, and you’re going to bust your tail to make sure that we get a turnaround season for next year,’” Stehling said. “Going into this 3A/4A conference wasn’t easy; it was about what we expected it to be, and we came out with a little better record than we did with the 1A/2A conference.”
Stehling did his best to make the Knights the best they could be, and that’s all he wants to do at Western Carolina, both for the football team and the track and field program.
“(I want to be) another leader, and another opportunity to make Western Carolina the best program it can be,” he said.
Stehling said he chose the Catamounts, who compete in the Football Championship Subdivision of Division I, because they made him feel like he mattered.
That feeling of acceptance and importance ultimately outweighed interest from Elon University and a red shirt offer from N.C. State, he said.
“I liked everything that was up there. I loved all the people and the coaches, and I didn’t feel like just a number, I felt like somebody and a part of something,” Stehling said.
Although Stehling has played football since he was a young boy, the potential for playing at the Division I level didn’t occur to him until college coaches started noticing him as a junior.
He said several D-I coaches invited him to their camps and wanted to watch him work out.
“It really hit me my junior year that I could really do something with myself for football and track,” he said.
Two-year Knights head football coach David Maness feels Stehling made a wise decision in choosing the Catamounts, and predicts big things for him.
After all, Maness has seen Stehling, who will compete in the NCHSAA state 3A indoor track and field championships today in Winston-Salem, do the things necessary to be successful even when the team has struggled.
“I really think Chase has a good opportunity going in there. The offensive line is a maturation process in college, and it takes time to learn, to learn the things that you need to do and grow in being a college offensive lineman,” Maness said. “By his sophomore or junior year, I project him being All-Southern Conference.
“He’s got long arms, he’s got good feet, he’s strong, he’s got a great work ethic. I don’t think he’s missed a workout in the summer in the two years that I’ve been here unless he’s been at a combine or camp somewhere.”
All that work has allowed Stehling to set himself apart from the rest, and it has also turned an eye towards a program not known for its football.
Maness is hoping Stehling is just the first in a long line of successful D-I recruits from North Lincoln.
“We’re proud of what it speaks for our program. It says you can go to North Lincoln High School and go on to play in college and play Division I football, and have the opportunity,” Maness said. “He’s a great ambassador for us right now. We’re looking forward to him going off and being successful there, then coming back and being able to be positive to our younger kids who come along.”