NOTE: Each day, the Observer will unveil a team ranked in its Sweet 16 football poll. We continue today with No. 11 Hibriten. Saturday (Aug. 6) around 3 p.m, the No. 10 team will be unveiled and each day at 3 p.m. a new team will follow.
(In photo left to right: Hibriten QB Michael McCaleb; RB Julius Gaines; LB Daniel Osborne; C Nathan Schultz)
If football games were played on paper, and star power and press clippings were the mark of a champion, then fans of Lenoir’s Hibriten High football team might worry.
The Panthers have won 37 games the past three seasons without nearly the amount of fanfare typical of such success. College recruiters aren’t knocking down the door of head coach Clay Lewis.
But there’s a degree of respect afforded the team that makes Lewis proud.
“We talk about building tradition,” Lewis said. “We’re not there yet. We’re not a traditional power. But that’s our goal. That’s what we’re striving for.”
The Panthers, who head into the 2011 campaign at No. 11 in the Observer’s preseason Sweet 16 poll, graduated 29 players, including all but two starters from last year’s 12-3 team.
Despite the losses, they remain the team to beat in the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference. After claiming the conference championship in 2008 and 2009, the team was denied that distinction last year, falling to Alexander Central in overtime in the regular season finale.
Senior Julius Gaines is the Panther who gets the most publicity. He’ll return to a starting cornerback position, where he intercepted eight passes a year ago, in addition to returning both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns.
Senior Nathaan Schultz, a 5-foot-10, 257-pound center, is the lone returnee on offense.
The players force themselves to be humble, and they say the team benefits because their unselfishness and camaraderie lead them to sacrifice gaudy personal statistics in exchange for impressive victories. None of the players on this year’s team earned all-conference honors a year ago.
Consider this: The Panthers leading rusher last season had 905 yards and the team averaged just 8.2 passing attempts per game, yet they were in the lead late in the fourth quarter of two of their three losses last season, including a fourth-round playoff game at West Rowan. And they gave Butler all it could handle in a 35-28 battle.
How do they do it? By focusing on intangibles off the field and by executing their Flex Bone offense to perfection and rotating plenty of players into the mix in their 3-3-5 alignment on defense.
Four players split the majority of carries last season from the fullback spot, but all four graduated leaving openings for junior Jermaine Davenport and sophomore Zack Walker. The quarterback job belongs to senior Michael McCaleb, with junior Jordan Rutherford, who started on the junior varsity a year ago, also expected to see plenty of action.
McCaleb, last year’s backup signal-caller, is the leading returning rusher for the Panthers. He had 202 yards on the ground and scored three touchdowns. Gaines will be a slot receiver and see considerable time in the backfield. Lewis says the talented Gaines should get 15-20 touches per game this season. And the coach says the team may be lacking the depth it had last year but still has the talent to win every game it plays.
“We expect to win. That’s the bottom line,” Lewis said.
The players have the same lofty expectations.
“Coach says that seniors graduate but tradition never does,” said Schultz. “We’re trying to build a legacy, not just a team.”
Part of that legacy at Hibriten comes from the Panthers Roar, a program in place the past two years that involves players and coaches helping out those in need in the community by doing odd jobs like yard work, or helping people move. It’s become a weekly routine for the players, who have combined forces at various times with a local shelter for battered women, local soup kitchens, and organizations like Habitat for Humanity.
The idea came about, in part, because Lewis and his team wanted to repay the community for the support the community provides on Friday nights during football season. Panthers Roar has made plenty of noise in the Lenoir community, where players have become mentors to the elementary and middle school kids who watch them perform.
“It makes you realize it’s not all about you,” Gaines said.
Added Schultz: “It’s made a huge difference in our team. We’re trying to help people out who support us and help us every Friday night. But it’s so much more than that. It helps us as a football team too. We all know there’s a lot more to the guy lining up next to you than football ability. There’s character. That goes a long way.”
Last year: 12-3, 5-1 (lost 20-14 to West Rowan in fourth-round playoff game)
What’s new: Twenty of the 22 starters will be new, as will the need for as many as six players to begin the season as two-way starters.
Three to watch
CB/RB Julius Gaines (Sr. 6-1, 175): Game-changer with decent speed and great instincts
C Nathaan Schultz (Sr. 5-10, 257): Has athleticism and will be a leader on the offensive line
TE/LB Daniel Osborne (Sr. 6-2, 231): Will mentor a young linebacking corps and could move into spot at defensive end if young, talented unit featuring three sophomores matures quickly.
Bet you didn’t know: Two new starters on the offensive line are cousins Jonathan Minton and Mason Minton. Jonathan (Soph. 6-3, 288) and Mason (Jr. 6-1, 298) both have “big” brothers. Mason’s brother, Fisher Minton, is a 6-5, 330 pound red-shirt freshman at UNC Pembroke. Daniel Minton, Jonathan’s brother, is a 6-3, 310 pound freshman on the Hibriten junior varsity who is expected to be on the varsity by season’s end.
Preview analysis: There’s no flashiness with the Panthers, just hard work and physical play. The style has worked perfectly for the team during its recent streak of stellar seasons and should work again this year. Lack of depth, especially early in the season, could be the biggest obstacle for the team.
Schedule: Aug. 19, East Burke; 26, Tuscola, Sept. 2, at West Caldwell, 9, at Patton, 16, at South Caldwell, 23, Davie County, 30, St. Stephens, Oct. 7, at Fred T. Foard, 14, Hickory, 21, at Watauga, 28, Alexander.
The Sweet 16 (so far)
No. 10: Announced in Sunday’s Observer and at 3 p.m. Saturday on charlotteobserver.com
No. 11: Hibriten (3A)
No. 12: Burns (3A)
No. 13: Sun Valley (4A)
No. 14: Independence (4A)
No. 15: Lincolnton (2A)
No. 16: Albemarle (1A)