Seventeen starters return. So do 38 lettermen.
The driver is back – the man who guided the team bus down a crowded downtown street on a frigid Saturday night last December. The cheering fans who lined the street will return, too.
And the mountain is still there, standing over the town and the football stadium like a sentinel.
Lenoir Hibriten football coach Clay Lewis took his team on a hike up Hibriten Mountain one day in November 2016. They had a picnic, bonded and posed for a photo – taken by Lewis’ wife Jamie – that hangs in the team’s weight room.
“We had a bye week that year before the playoffs started, because a hurricane had forced teams in the East to miss a week,” Lewis recalls, looking at the photo. “Faith, family and football – that’s our theme every year.”
By all measures, Hibriten stands a good chance of repeating as state 2AA champion this season. The Panthers are coming off a 16-0 campaign that ended with a 16-14 championship victory over East Duplin.
The group of returnees includes senior McKinley Witherspoon, who rushed for 2,057 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2017, and defensive standouts such as end Tyler Watson, linebacker Hayden Wyke and safety Skylin Thomas.
The football program might be a metaphor for the foothills town of Lenoir, which lies along U.S. 321 about midway between Hickory and Boone. The town was a furniture-producing giant, but when that industry faltered, Lenoir reinvented itself. Now there’s a Google data center and a growing medical industry.
Hibriten once lost 29 straight football games in the 1990s, but alum Chuck Cannon arrived as coach in 1999 and revived the program. Lewis, an assistant at the school since the late 1980s, took over as head coach when Cannon left in 2010.
“We occasionally had an off year, but it was 6-5 instead of 1-10,” Lewis says.
He says the secret to the football success is in the weight room, a 4,500-square-foot building that stands within eyesight of the Panthers’ stadium, nestled into the side of a tree-lined hill.
“There’s not a lot of fancy equipment,” says Lewis, a native of Robeson County who spurned the family’s farming business for a life as a coach. “We just come in here and work, trying to get better.”
On the wall, next to a series of football photos that includes the picnic scene from 2016, is an electronic clock that counts down the days, hours and minutes to the 2018 season opener at Concord’s Jay M. Robinson High School.
But Hibriten football is also the town.
Last December, when Lewis was driving the team bus back to Lenoir after winning the state title (“I get bus sick, so I drive,” the coach says), he was shocked to be greeted by several police cars on Interstate 40 at the Iredell-Catawba line. The bus got a police escort back to Lenoir.
There, on a Saturday night, town residents – the same residents who pack the Panthers’ stadium on Friday nights for every home game – lined the street and cheered the team.
“It was an unbelievable sight,” Jamie Lewis recalls. “When the bus stopped, the players got out and started a snowball fight. It turned into a party.”
Clay Lewis says that like any other successful coach, he’s had other job offers.
“Why would you leave this?” his wife asks. “The whole program gets so much support.”
Principal David Colwell walks the sidelines at every game. Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons is a big fan. They could have plenty to cheer about this fall.
Ten starters return on offense, led by Witherspoon and quarterback Jaylen Scott. The defense has eight starters returning, but the Panthers lost standouts in safety Mike Simon, Charles Tassinari and Noah Haney. And kicker Noah Haney, most valuable player in the state title game, has graduated.
“This year we’ll have a target on our back,” Lewis says. “Our opponents don’t care what we did last year. It all depends on how we respond.”
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.
2017: 16-0, state 2AA champion
Conference: Foothills 2A
Top returnees: RB McKinley Witherspoon; QB Jaylen Scott; DE Tyler Watson; LB Hayden Wyke; DB Skylin Thomas.
Outlook: The Panthers will run the ball a lot, but their defense, a key to the 2017 success, could be the key in a return to the title game.