Through 14 games last year — all of them wins — Hibriten’s high-scoring football team averaged 50 points. The Panthers outscored opponents 704-130.
But when the N.C. Western Regional championship game ended, the Panthers (14-1) had failed to score.
The sting of Hibriten’s 26-0 playoff loss against South Point still resonates in the Lenoir high school’s weight room. Coach Clay Lewis has made sure of it.
“We didn't end the way we would have liked to last year, so one thing we’ve focused on and talked a lot about is paying attention to detail,” Lewis said. “We feel like we're close to where we want to be, but it’s the small things — the little things we have to get better at.
“The small things that maybe didn't catch up with us in those first 14 games did in that South Point game.”
Lewis said the Panthers “played tight” against South Point with a berth in the state 3A championship game at stake. Since 2011, Hibriten has had two 10-win seasons compared to six for the Red Raiders. Lewis said the loss was the only time all season his team seemed outmatched.
“We just weren’t the same team and South Point had been in that situation more,” Lewis said. “In my opinion, South Point was just a better team than we were.”
But while inexperience might have hampered Hibriten’s chances last year, Lewis said that won’t be a problem this season. The Panthers return 10 juniors who either started or played key back-up roles last season. They’ll be joined by six seniors.
“We have some talented kids back,” Lewis said. “Leadership is going to be a big key to us as well as chemistry and getting those guys together.”
Senior middle linebacker Charles Tassinari is one of those players. Last season he recorded 84 tackles, caused seven fumbles and recovered five. Another player to watch is running back McKinley Witherspoon, a junior who rushed for 1,055 yards last season and scored 19 touchdowns.
Lewis said he’s also made a concerted effort to add tougher opponents to Hibriten’s nonconference schedule. The Panthers’ first game is at home Aug. 18 against Concord’s J.M. Robinson, which won 10 games last year.
“I think we're going to have some stiff competition early on,” Lewis said. “That first game is going to be a real tough game for us.
“But I think our nonconference schedule is going to help us develop our team and be competitive so when we roll down into conference time we can be competitive.”