For the past three high school football seasons, Sage Surratt helped East Lincoln dominate Lincolnton, the Mustangs’ biggest rival.
Friday night, though, Surratt will suit up for Lincolnton and try to defeat his former school.
Surratt, who ranks fourth all-time among N.C. high school players in receiving yardage, transferred from East Lincoln to Lincolnton in late June.
“It was my dad’s (Kevin) decision for me to transfer,” said Surratt, 18. “My father knows what is best for me, and I agree with what he decides. But when we made the decision, we knew this game would happen. It was kind of like, ‘We’ll deal with it when it comes.’”
The Lincolnton-East Lincoln football game is annually among the biggest events in Lincoln County, home to nearly 80,000 residents along the western shore of Lake Norman and northwest of Charlotte. It’s a game coaches and players from both sides say creates an atmosphere that feels similar to days leading to a state championship.
“You know that early in the week,” East Lincoln coach Mike Byus said of the game. “People are talking about, ‘Where can we buy tickets?’ You know there’s going to be a large crowd, a great atmosphere to play in, standing room only.
“I told our kids to enjoy that. It’s not every week that you get to play in an atmosphere like that.”
East Lincoln and Lincolnton have made eight appearances in the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship game, winning four state titles between them. Almost every year, at least one of them is a contender, and this season each is 5-0 with powerhouse offenses.
And Friday’s game will likely be among the most memorable in the rivalries’ history because Surratt, one of East Lincoln’s all-time greatest players, has switched sides.
“Being where we are (geographically), we hardly ever get transfers into Lincolnton,” said Lincolnton coach Ledford Gibson. “And to have one of that caliber come in has been a big blessing.”
Surratt, who is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, has caught 32 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns this season. In three seasons at East Lincoln, he caught 233 passes for 3,688 yards and 53 touchdowns, nearly all from older brother Chazz, now a freshman quarterback at North Carolina. Chazz Surratt led East Lincoln to state championships in 2012 and 2014. Almost as important, he led the Mustangs to five straight wins over Lincolnton, including playoffs.
Now, his brother is wearing Lincolnton’s black and gold instead of green and orange -- and trying to end that streak.
“It’s going to be a little weird standing on the opposite sideline, going into the visitor’s locker room,” Sage Surratt said. “And yeah, it’ll be hard to play against them. Some of my best friends are on that team.
“But it comes down to this: They are competitors and I’m a competitor. We’ll go out there and compete.”
East Lincoln’s Byus agrees the game will have an awkward feel, but it’s still a game both teams need to win. They are tied for first place in the Southern District 7 Conference, as each is 1-0.
“I think Sage knows everybody here loves him and cares about him,” Byus said. “But there’s going to be a game to play for 48 minutes and both teams will try as hard as they can to win a game.
“After that, I feel comfortable with the fact that everybody will shake hands and go on about their business. But is it awkward? Yes.”
Even without Surratt, East Lincoln has been dominant this season. Senior wide receiver Cameron Dollar, who has made his college commitment to the Charlotte 49ers, was named to the N.C Shrine Bowl team Monday. He’s caught 29 passes for 615 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Quarterback Marcus Graham has thrown for 1,044 yards and 16 scores. The Mustangs, who averaged 44 points last season with the Surratts, are averaging 40 points per game.
Lincolnton, which averaged 38 points last season, is up to nearly 50 points this season. Junior quarterback Cordel Littlejohn has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior Langdon Givens has 314 yards receiving and six touchdowns, and senior running back Xavier McClain has rushed for 748 yards and 12 scores, averaging more than 10 yards per carry.
So, even without the Surratt storyline, this would be a big game. But that storyline is certainly there.
“We haven’t talked about it...so it doesn’t bother (Surratt),” Lincolnton’s Gibson said. “Going against his former (teammates ) will be tough, but he’s a very intelligent and mature kid.
“His biggest motivation is wanting to win games and that alone will keep his mind on what he has to do, but I’m sure it’ll be difficult for him at first to play in a different color jersey in this game.”
Surratt also wonders what that will be like.
“I’m definitely excited for it,” he said. “I am a little curious how people are going to see it and how fans will react. But I’m just ready to play, and I’m focused on getting a win.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
Inside a rivalry
Since 2000 the teams have played 19 times, including playoffs meetings. Lincolnton has won nine of those games, including a five straight wins from 2001-2005. East Lincoln has won the past five games, by an average of 17.2 points Here are the game results
2000: East Lincoln 34-14
2008: East Lincoln 49-14;
2001: Lincolnton 24-6
2008: East Lincoln 24-7**
2002: Lincolnton 35-14
2009: East Lincoln 31-14
2003: Lincolnton 40-38
2010: Lincolnton 42-28
2004: Lincolnton 12-0
2011: Lincolnton 55-39
2005: Lincolton 35-21
2012: East Lincoln 13-8
2006: East Lincoln 14-7
2013: East Lincoln 28-9
2007: Lincolnton 24-6
2014: East Lincoln 49-27
2007: Lincolnton 21-13*
2014: East Lincoln 35-14***
2015: East Lincoln 40-21
*fourth-round playoff; **second-round playoff; ***third-round playoff