Monday, August 1, 2011

The 2011 Preseason Sweet 16 Football Poll: No. 15

NOTE: Each day, the Observer will unveil a team ranked in its Sweet 16 football poll. We continue today with No. 15 Lincolnton. Tuesday (Aug. 2) at 3 p.m, the No. 14 team will be unveiled and each day at 3 p.m. a new team will follow.

By Brett Honeycutt
Brett HoneycuttCorrespondent
            Not much has changed at Lincolnton since the school’s first football season in 1959.
            The football program has had only three head coaches – Von Ray Harris, Richard Smith and current coach Scott Cloninger, who played for Harris and Smith – and the Wolves still run an option-style offense like Harris ran from 1959 to 1986.
            And they continue to win.
            The Wolves’ first of 17 conference titles came in 1960 and the most recent was last season, when they finished 14-1 overall and 5-0 in the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A conference.
            Expectations are high again, which is why Lincolnton enters at No. 15 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 preseason rankings this season.
            “No turnover no change,” said Cloninger, who played for Lincolnton in 1971-74 when Harris was head coach and Smith was an assistant, and was an assistant under Harris and Smith before taking over in 2000. “They’re going to get coached the same way. A lot of our former players are coaching or assisting coaches. Half (of our assistants) are former players.”
            “That feeds (the tradition) more than anything,” Cloninger said of having former players helping. “There’s a pride factor, a care factor that they want to be there and coach. That, in and of itself, has established Lincolnton’s tradition more than anything.”
            “They’re not going to see a change every year. There are some (schools) that have had three coaches in three years, and here they don’t have to worry about that.”
            Harris passed away in March at the age of 86, but before that both he and Smith were at games supporting the team.
            All three are part of the tradition that has helped Lincolnton win two state titles (1993 and 2007) and finish runner-up three times (1967, 1994, 2005), and are also the reasons Lincolnton has such a huge following.
            The stadium seats 4,400 and had standing room only crowds last season, topping out at more than 6,000 for the West Lincoln game.
            “We’re doing reserved seats this year,” Cloninger said. “First year in a long time we’re doing that. It’s been a madhouse. Last year, people put down blankets on Sunday and Monday for Friday’s game. We could have taken care of the Christian ministries with all the blankets in the stadium.”
            The reason for the excitement this season isn’t only the tradition, but the talent Lincolnton returns this year has the potential to win a state championship.
            The excitement stems from the return of eight players on offense and defense and a team that averaged 40.6 points per game last season, scoring more than 49 points four times and scoring less than 40 only four times. The defense gave up an average of 16.5 points per game.
            Leading the returnees is senior Michael Cunningham (6-0, 205), a running back who is also a dangerous kick returner. Likely the most valuable player on the field, he is a preseason all-state selection by NCPreps and scored five defensive touchdowns last year in helping the Wolves to the N.C. 2A West Regional final.
            Also returning are seniors Dee Littlejohn (6-1, 220 pound, fullback) and another versatile player in Jalen Littlejohn (6-2, 180, wingback, wide receiver, cornerback, safety, outside linebacker).
            Add to that East Lincoln transfer Patrick Rendleman (6-2, 185, quarterback), who passed for 789 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 685 yards and seven scores in only nine games, and it’s easy to see why the excitement has swelled.
            “We’re not a big team,” Cloninger said. “Lincolnton High School has never been a big-bodied team. We’re a quick, very aggressive team on both sides of the ball. And there’s a lot of hype in the city of Lincolnton. There are a lot of people in the city of Lincolnton ready for some football.”

Last year:
14-1, 5-0 Southern Piedmont 1A/2A (advanced to 2A West final before losing 41-27 to Winston-Salem Carver)
What’s new: Former East Lincoln quarterback Patrick Rendleman moved into the Lincolnton district last winter and will be the starting quarterback.
Three to watch:
FB/WB/PR/KR Michael Cunningham (6-0, 205), Sr.: NCPreps preseason 2A All-State as a specialist. All-around, versatile athlete who can run and catch the ball out of the backfield, but he’s more dangerous returning kicks and in the secondary (scored three TDs by interception, returned a fumble and blocked punt for two more scores).
FB Dee Littlejohn (6-1, 220), Sr.: Big, strong, fast fullback who can outrun most people in the secondary.
WB/QB/WR Jalen Littlejohn (6-2, 180), Sr.: Can play multiple positions not just on offense, but defense (OLB, CB, S), as well, and is one of the main leaders on both sides of the ball.
Bet you didn’t know: Team has gone to Lees-McRae the past few summers for football camp. It’s helped team chemistry and given them a chance to play 7-on-7 games against teams they don’t see in the regular season: Watauga (4A), Fred T. Foard (3A) and West Wilkes (2A).
Preview analysis: The skill positions will be strong on both sides of the ball, but depth will be their weakness as a lot of players will have to play both offense and defense.
Schedule: Aug.: 19, at Maiden; 26, Belmont South Point; Sept.: 2, Lake Norman Charter; 9, at Shelby; 16, Gastonia Forestview; 23 Gastonia Highland Tech; Sep. 30, East Lincoln; Oct. 7, at Cherryville; 14, at Bessemer City; 21, North Lincoln; 28, at West Lincoln.

14. ??? To be announced 8/2 at 3 p.m.
15. Lincolnton
16. Albemarle