For most of the last decade, the Southern Piedmont Conference has essentially been a two-team race between Lincolnton and archrival East Lincoln.
This year, the Wolves and the Mustangs will again start out as the top two teams on paper, but the rest of the league is eager to contend.
Lincolnton is the favorite after going 11-0 in the regular season last year, finishing with its first and only loss in the 2A state semifinals to Carver. The Wolves finished the year 14-1.
Coach Scott Cloninger and his team are eager to prove that they can do it again and have the returning talent to do so.
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"We have high expectations and our goals are very high as a team," he said. "There is also a lot of buzz in the community about this team, so everybody is excited."
The biggest obstacle to winning an SPC title for the Wolves is replacing all-conference quarterback Brandon Wilson. That responsibility will go to senior Patrick Rendleman, who transferred from East Lincoln. He will have plenty of talent around him.
The Lincolnton rushing attack will again be the main weapon with senior fullback Dee Littlejohn, who had 1,145 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns last year, punishing opponents and driving the offense along with senior Drake Henry.
Senior Michael Cunningham has big-play capability at wideout along with classmate Jonathan Gidney.
Cunningham also headlines one of the better secondaries in the state, filled with experienced playmakers like Jalen Littlejohn and Wesley Perkins, who all have a knack for making game-changing plays.
Aside from conference runners-up East Lincoln, West Lincoln has the best chance of also contending for an SPC title after going 8-4 (3-2 in SPC play) in 2010.
Coach Tom Sain, who enters his second year at the helm of the Rebel program, is looking to build a consistent winner at West.
"It's definitely a challenge to go against guys like Coach Cloninger and Coach (Mike) Byus with such established programs," said Sain. "But our goal is to do what they have done and build the kind of winning tradition that those guys have built, where you expect to win."
Senior Evan Lopes and Dylan Smith will shoulder most of the running back duties with classmate Nick Fisher taking over the quarterback spot. Fisher has varsity experience, starting several games his sophomore year because of injuries to Caleb Beal.
The Rebel defense should also be solid led by Dylan Davis on the defensive line, while Derrick Braun can work sideline to sideline from his linebacker position.
Cherryville (6-6, 2-3 in 2010) is another team looking to move up the ladder of the SPC standings, but it won't be easy as coach Keith Fox and the Ironmen have a lot of talent to replace.
Juniors Spencer Stamey and Darius Harris are battling for the starting quarterback slot while Nick Degree, Clay Fuller and Quentez Wingate look to replace four l,000-plus yard rushers that graduated.
The offensive line is probably the strength of the team with Patrick Harrill (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and Daniel Owens (6-foot-3, 290) paving the way. The defensive line is also solid with Harrill and Owens at tackles and Logan Willis, who moves over from linebacker, and Gus Deviney on the edges.
North Lincoln has struggled in the past two seasons, going a combined 3-19. But interim coach Zach Bevilacqua, who was hired earlier this month after leading the Knights' JV program, will try to breathe new life in the program.
The offensive line is probably the most experienced group with Taylor Lawing, Major Kay and Brandon Arthur coming back.
The major skill positions will be manned by players looking to step up their games, including quarterback Cory Blake, who led the JV team last year, running back Landon Bullock and wideout Alex Leach, who comes to the team from Pennsylvania.
The defense will also depend on Arthur, Kay and Lawing on the line, while Matt Mullen and David Spinner lead a talented linebacker corp. Bullock is the only returning starter at safety.
After back-to-back playoff wins for only the second time in school history in 2008 and 2009, Bessemer City had a tough year in 2010, winning only one game all year with no wins in the SPC.
But there is reason for optimism this season, as senior tailback Jhalen Adams, a three-year starter, returns as one of top backs in the league with classmate Raheem McMiller also in the mix at running back, wide receiver and kick returners.
Senior linebacker Zack Cole leads the Yellow Jacket defense after recording 96 tackles last season.
Highland Tech and Lake Norman Charter both move into the SPC this year, which will be a step up for both teams.
The Rams and coach Jerry Jordan are familiar with SPC teams, but haven't been competitive against them. It will be a challenge for Highland Tech to face a full slate of conference games after winning only two games last season.
Sophomore tailback Johnny Beard will lead the Ram offense with Demetrius Lewis on both sides of the ball at quarterback, running back and defensive back.