Rain greets teams on opening day
By RYAN HERMAN
The high school football scene officially opened statewide on Friday, and the county’s four programs got their seasons underway.
Weather proved to be the first hurdle that had to be overcome. The soaking rain that fell late Thursday into Friday afternoon forced some teams to move their practices inside, and slowed things down for those who chose to brave the elements. But things began to dry out Saturday, and East Lincoln, Lincolnton, North Lincoln and West Lincoln are ready for their third day of practice today.
“Pretty much everybody showed up and were ready to go,” North Lincoln coach David Maness said. “We had a good, spirited workout.”
Teams can hold their first scrimmage a week from today, and the season officially kicks off on Aug. 22.
Week 1 matchups are Lincolnton at North Lincoln, East Gaston at East Lincoln and West Lincoln at Valdese Draughn.
With Mike Byus at the helm, the Mustangs had always held their first practice outdoors –– until Friday.
East Lincoln was forced into the gym when its 8 a.m. practice was washed out Friday, a first in Byus’ 31-year coaching career.
“The first day was the first time in my 31 years of (coaching) existence that we had to go inside on the first day,” he said.
But all was not lost.
Byus said the Mustangs, the 2012 NCHSAA state 2A champions, made the most of things that were out of their control.
“We were able to do a lot of the mental work. Got some conditioning in, some weightlifting in. Got to line up on defense and some formations,” Byus said.
A plus for East Lincoln entering this morning’s early practice was how advanced its skill players are at this point. A downside to that is its offensive line can’t keep up at the moment.
The line has three of the five starters returning, but Byus said he’s currently in the process of shuffling some players around.
“We had a good summer with our skill kids. Honestly, our skill kids are ready to play now,” Byus said. “We’ve just got to get the lines caught up with them knowledge-wise.”
Two things surprised longtime head coach Scott Cloninger when the Wolves opened practice Friday in his final season –– how far ahead his team is, and how few players showed up.
Cloninger said the Wolves, “did more this year than we’ve ever done,” in terms of summer workouts, but all the 7-on-7 workouts, and passing and defensive drills, didn’t draw the large number of participants he’s used to.
“Numbers were a little low, but the athletes we’ve got are pretty good athletes,” Cloninger said. “They came back with a good attitude, and we’re ahead of schedule.”
The biggest leap Cloninger noted his team making during the offseason was in its passing game. Lincolnton finished fifth in the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference in passing yardage last season (1,101 total yards) after switching from the option to the I-formation during non-league play.
“It surprised me how much we were able to accomplish this summer,” he said. “Had I known it this early we’d probably been doing it a lot more (summer workouts) all these years.”
But the offensive success may be limited to a handful of players.
Cloninger said “about 60” showed up for Friday evening’s first practice, which is a 25-percent drop to an average of the “high 70s.”
“This is the lowest I’ve ever remembered,” he said.
Cloninger, who announced last month that 2014 would be his last, has mastered getting the most out of his players. He has 132 wins, three state title game appearances and one state title in 13 seasons so far to prove it.
“If we can find 33 players on the varsity, that’s a good number,” he said. “And we’re right at that.”
The rain was the least of the Knights’ worries.
They opened practice Friday with improving their defense a priority, but did so days after losing a non-faculty assistant coach. Maness said the school brought in an assistant from the outside, and shortly after being approved by the school board last week he was offered and accepted a job elsewhere in the private sector, which requires him to relocate.
So the Knights are faced with tightening up a defense that allowed 32.5 points per game in 2013, and, will do so without a designated coach, at least in the short term.
“We’ve got to improve our defense a little bit. We’re a coach short, and that’s a concern right now,” Maness said. “That was a priority (entering the first day of practice). We really need to improve ourself defensively.”
The rain slowed North Lincoln down a bit –– it utilized both of the school’s gyms in split-squad workouts –– but was able to get out on the practice field on Saturday.
“It was kind of sloppy, but we got out and got some work done,” Maness said. “We’re in pretty good condition, I think.”
The Knights opened with 20-plus seniors, Maness said, and it’s because of that leadership he feels they can take a step in the right direction in 2014.
To do so, though, Maness said his team will need to learn how to put teams away when it has the chance, and not wilt under pressure like it has in the past.
“The first couple of days you’re trying to get — most of our base stuff is already in — but you’ve got a few things you need to get in. Now, we’ve got everybody together and you try to get everybody on the same page pointing towards that first scrimmage.”
“We’ve had a bunch of games in the last two years that we’ve been in … and hadn’t been able to close the deal. That’s a goal for us,” he said. “Had we done that and taken care of some close games last year we would have made the playoffs.”
“We’re as athletic and we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Maness added. “We need to take a step forward this year.”
The weekend rain was an omen of sorts for the Rebels –– they’re seeds in need of watering in order to grow.
The youthful Rebels opened practice Friday with several question marks at starting positions because of the mass exodus of 2014 graduates, but one positive is how versatile their young players can be.
“We’ve got a lot of young players that are going to contribute to a lot of positions. Some players are probably going to be able to play multiple positions. That gives us a chance to move some people to some different places,” West Lincoln coach Tom Sain said.
Sain said his team opened Friday morning with 50 in attendance –– 28 varsity players and 22 junior varsity –– so one early concern the fifth-year coach has is a lack of depth.
“You want to have as many players as you can to come out for the season,” he said. “I’d like to have a few more JV guys out.”
A big question surrounding the Rebels heading into the first official day of practice was what players were going to step up and fill the offensive voids left after the graduations of quarterback Miguel Corella and fullback Daniel Davila.
Sain said the starting quarterback spot will be filled by rising junior Noah Marsh, who led the junior varsity Rebels to a 5-5 record as a sophomore and completed his only varsity pass last season, which went for 56 yards, in a 38-12 blowout win over Fred T. Foard in Week 4.
Sain said rising senior Charles Mack George will handle the bulk of the carries at the fullback position. George ran for 361 yards in a reserve role last season, having at least one carry in each game. His season-high was 142 yards on 15 carries with a pair of touchdowns in a 49-19 win over West Caldwell in Week 9.
West Lincoln won seven games last season and qualified for the state playoffs for the fourth consecutive year –– a school record.
Sain is hoping the first two days of practice translate into a fifth.
“The kids are excited,” he said, “and I was pleased with what I saw.”