Lance Ware, the head football coach at Shelby High School, has worked at the school for 20 years. He’s coached in 10 state championship games. So he’s seen some of the best players North Carolina has had to offer over the past two decades.
And Ware, all school bias aside, said he’s never been around a defensive high school football player quite like Shelby senior Dax Hollifield.
“His work ethic, his ability to diagnose plays is nothing like I’ve ever seen,” said Ware, who will begin his seventh season as Golden Lions head coach this month. “He’s a 4.5 student and he’s everything you could ever want.”
Hollifield, 17, is a 6-foot-2, 230 pound senior inside linebacker who is ranked fifth nationally at his position by scout.com. He is on the watch list for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best high school linebacker. Hollifield said he will play college football at either Florida State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Stanford or Virginia Tech. But before he leaves town, Hollifield has another goal: lead Shelby, and Ware, to a fifth straight state championship.
“I think we’re as good as we were last year (Shelby was 16-0 in 2016),” Hollifield said, “because we work so hard and we play so much harder than last year. I think five in a row is very realistic. Defense wins championships and I’d put our defense against any offense in the whole state.”
Part of what makes Shelby so successful, Hollfield said, is Shelby football means so much to everyone here. As kids, they grow up watching the team play, every Friday, and everybody wants to be involved. Today, of the 840 students in school, 118 are playing football. That’s about a quarter of Shelby High’s male population, Ware said.
“Shelby is Shelby,” Hollifield said. “Everybody wants to say they are so and so. But Shelby is the football town in the state of North Carolina. I believe nobody has the tradition we have, the championships we have. We’ve done it since the beginning of our program, since forever, which is why we are who we are and why we have the fan base that’s sort of like a college fan base. It’s great being a Golden Lion. I love it.”
Shelby is a town of about 20,000 people about an hour’s drive from uptown Charlotte. Since the 1920s, the high school has been a major source of pride for the city. And the Golden Lions have been remarkably consistent.
Since 1948, for example, the school has won 16 regional or state championships, including nine N.C. High School Athletic Association titles since 1986. And since the start of the 1950 season, Shelby has produced nearly 400 all-conference players and 37 Shrine Bowl players.
It’s likely that Hollifield will be No. 38.
As a junior, Hollifield had 154 tackles and 18 sacks. In his final game, a 28-6 N.C. 2AA state championship win over Northside-Jacksonville, Hollifield was named most outstanding defense player. He finished with 16 tackles, 3.5 of them for losses, plus a sack and a fumble recovery. After the season, MaxPreps named him to its junior All-America team.
“I’ve never seen a defensive player like him,” said Shelby longtime statistician Jim Sherman. Sherman and his brother, Bob, started keeping stats as students in the early ’80s, returned in the ’90s and never left. “Dax is always around the ball and he studies the game. It’s like he know what’s going on at all times. But the good thing about him is he’s down-to-earth. He’s just a high school kid, you know. But put him on that field, and he’s totally changed. He’s so focused on everything.”
Hollifield credits a lot of his football ability to playing basketball. His father, Aubrey, is Shelby’s defensive line coach but also the Golden Lions basketball coach. Shelby won a state championship in basketball in 2009 and Dax watched his father get a ring.
“I think basketball is the best sport ever,” Dax Hollifield said. “I love it. Me and my dad go to the gym every Sunday and have worked out since I was a little kid. Playing defense in basketball has helped me in football. I’m really good now at lateral movement and I’ve very explosive. I can’t jump as high as everybody, but when I come down, I can go right back up just as high. Plus, in basketball you’ve got to play hard and that’s helped me out in football.”
Dax’s younger brother, Jack, is a 6-foot-2 freshman defensive tackle. He’s already showing promise like his brother once did. But Jack will play on the line instead of his natural linebacker position because all three of Shelby’s linebackers return from the 2016 state champions: Dax plus senior Will Stites and junior Jaylon Scott. Those three were central figures of a defense that allowed less than 10 points per game a year ago.
Jack Hollifield, Shelby coach Ware said, will clearly have his time. But everyone in Shelby knows that this is Dax Hollifield’s team, and Dax Hollifield is absolutely raring to go.
“He’s been around this since he was a little kid,” Ware said, “jumping on the pile before games. But the biggest thing I see is how humble he is. All the attention he’s gotten hasn’t changed his demeanor or his work ethic, and really it’s just made him even more hungry.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr