Three weeks into this high school football season, South Point coach Mickey Lineberger said he wasn’t sure what to make of his team.
The Red Raiders opened the season with two losses in their first three games and things weren’t looking much brighter down the road.
That was three months ago, and it’s a much different South Point team that will face Rocky Mount Friday night for the N.C. 3A championship at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
So what changed?
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“Our kids decided ‘that’s not who we are,’” said Lineberger, in his fifth season as Red Raiders coach. “Our guys came together and decided that they wanted more than that.
“We’re not used to losing, and we needed to start finding ways to win. So they threw away the ‘I’ and started thinking about ‘team.’ With the guys we have, we’re not ever bigger, faster or stronger, so we have to play together as a team.”
South Point was coming off a 2014 season when it finished 10-5 and advanced to the 3A Western Regional final. It was a touchdown away from playing for a state title in losing to eventual state champion Crest.
The Red Raiders returned but 10 starters from last year’s team, leading to chemistry issues at the start of the season.
“The kids we had had to play together and get their chemistry going,” Lineberger said. “But when we started out, there were some people who were a little selfish – they were worrying about ‘my yards’ or ‘what I’m doing,’ ‘my stats,’ that kind of stuff.”
It led to a rough three-game start for the Red Raiders – while they beat Lincolnton, that win was sandwiched around losses to longtime rivals Crest and Shelby.
The 35-28 loss to Shelby on Sept. 4 was especially painful, as South Point blew a two-touchdown lead after a 90-minute lightning delay. It led to a lengthy meeting in the locker room after the game – and a newfound intensity from the Red Raiders.
“Coach said, ‘If we don’t change things around and start coming together as a team, we weren’t going to make the playoffs,’” senior linebacker Tyler Hall said. “We had to do something about it. We couldn’t keep going like we were going.”
Red Raiders’ turnaround
While Lineberger made his position clear, it fell on South Point’s seniors to lead the Red Raiders’ turnaround.
“We had to get some people on the same page, basically,” said senior free safety J.T. Starr. “We had some young players coming up from (junior varsity), and we had guys who had been on the varsity but really didn’t play that much.
“So the seniors had to step up and tell them what to do. We had to get them on the same track we were on. We knew what we wanted, so we had to get everybody else on that same page.”
After struggling through a tough, 35-34 win over West Charlotte on Sept. 14, South Point rolled through opponents. Over the course of a 12-game winning streak, the Red Raiders recorded four shutouts and were challenged once – in a 28-27 win over West Rowan in the third round of the state playoffs.
It led South Point’s players – especially the seniors – to think about going for a state title. The Red Raiders have won three, the last coming in 2009.
“I knew we could make a run – we just had to get everybody together,” said senior quarterback Diontrea King. “When we pulled out that win over West Charlotte, I knew then it could be a special year. We came up clutch in that game.”
Closing on Chapel Hill
When the season began, Lineberger admitted the Red Raiders were far from a team that had the look of a state title contender.
“I couldn’t see that at any point,” he said. “But every week, we got a little bit better. Every week, it’s grown and grown and grown and grown, and we’ve gotten better and better and better and better.
“At the start of the season, we had a long way to go, and I didn’t know if we would improve enough to get to where we are now. But we did.
“I tell the guys every day ‘Headlights shine 200 feet. We want to be 200 feet closer to Chapel Hill every day.’ We want to win the day, and we’ve done that.”
Now that South Point is there, the players are ready to take the next step.
“We couldn’t just say we wanted to do it, we had to show it,” Hall said. “It’s in the headlights now.”