Hopes and even expectations are a little higher in Shelby.
Most high school football teams spend their first day of practice in relative seclusion. Not in Shelby.
Dozens of people stood on the hill Monday that overlooks the Golden Lions’ practice fields, watching the first drills of 2018. A food truck was parked nearby, doing brisk business.
That’s what happens when you expect big things from a football team.
“We’ve had success, and that’s our expectation,” says Lance Ware, Shelby’s football coach.
“Success,” in this case, means four consecutive state championships from 2013-2016. And while a 12-3 season like the 2017 campaign might be very nice for most teams, it wasn’t a state title. The Golden Lions hope to get a new streak started.
“Look at that arm!” one of the observers atop the hill says, pointing to one of the players below. “That’s what gives me hope.”
The arm belongs to junior quarterback Isaiah Bess. At 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, Bess stands tall among area quarterbacks. During Monday’s practice, he repeatedly threw 35- and 40-yard passes that landed squarely in the arms of his receivers. He made it look easy.
But the rest of the football world knows about Bess, who backed up now-graduated Malik Sarratt last season. During this summer’s Cam Newton 7-on-7 tournament, Bess led Shelby to the championship – a 2A school that beat several 4A area powers. And Bess was named Most Valuable Player.
“He’s just a junior, but he looks good,” says Ware, who has been at Shelby since 2011 and has a 72-10 coaching record the past five seasons. “And we’ve got a lot of receivers back. We might be as deep as we’ve ever been at receiver.”
Seniors Santana Eaves and M.J. Allen and junior Ja’hari Mitchell, a transfer from Lawndale Burns, figure to be Bess’ key targets this season.
Shelby lost tons of offense from 2017. Sarratt threw for 2,481 yards, Xavier Brooks rushed for 1,416 yards, and the top two receivers are gone.
But Ware – and the men standing on the hill – figure that Bess and his receivers will handle the job nicely.
“We’ll probably throw the ball a good bit this year,” Ware acknowledges.
Defense might be more of a question mark, mostly because all-state linebacker Dax Hollifield has graduated and is now at Virginia Tech.
But Ware says he likes the athleticism of defensive backs like Desean Christopher, K.J. Washington and Dorian Davis, a senior who has committed to play at James Madison.
Add lineman Jack Hollifield, who was third on the team in tackles in 2017 as a freshman, and N.C. State commit Jaylon Scott at linebacker, and the Golden Lions look solid.
“We’ll actually have a freshman and some other younger players fighting for a spot on the defensive line,” Ware says. “But that looks good right now.”
The Golden Lions’ bid for a state title ended last year with a 19-7 loss to eventual 2AA champion Lenoir Hibriten in the regional finals.
“We’ve got a solid schedule,” Ware says, pointing to opponents like in-county powers Boiling Springs Crest and Kings Mountain, along with Asheville Reynolds and Southwestern 2A foe Belmont South Point. “But we’re pretty good in some spots. We’ll see what happens.”
Editor’s note: The Observer is previewing all 16 teams in its preseason Sweet 16 poll. The order will be revealed before the season kicks off Aug. 15.
SHELBY HIGH GOLDEN LIONS
2017: 12-3 (lost to Lenoir Hibriten in 2AA regional finals).
Conference: Southwestern 2A.
Top players: QB Isaiah Bess (6-4, 185, jr.); DL Tre Jolly (6-2, 215, sr.); DB Dorian Davis (6-0, 176, sr.); LB Jaylon Scott (6-2, 217, sr.); DL Jack Hollifield (6-3, 230, so.); Santana Eaves (6-1, 180, sr.).
Analysis: Isaiah Bess has emerged as a top-flight quarterback prospect, and he has plenty of targets. But the ground game is questionable, so Shelby will do most of its damage in the air. The defense looks solid, despite Dax Hollifield’s graduation. Look for Shelby to battle Belmont South Point for the conference title, but Lenoir Hibriten could be the Golden Lions’ big obstacle to a state crown.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle