The rivalries between Cleveland County’s four high school football teams – Burns, Crest, Kings Mountain and Shelby – are among some of the most-heated in North Carolina.
That changes during the playoffs, especially when there are state championships on the line.
Cleveland County football fans will have two teams to pull for this weekend – Crest (15-0), which faces Havelock (14-1) for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A title on Friday in Raleigh, and Shelby (13-2), which plays Clinton (13-1) for the 2A title Saturday in Winston-Salem.
“It’s as good as it gets,” said Shelby coach Lance Ware, whose Golden Lions are going for their second straight title and seventh overall. “Everybody’s excited and pulling for each other, and it really has galvanized the community and brought them together.”
It has become commonplace for at least one team from Cleveland County (population 97,047) to make it to the state finals – the four schools have a combined 11-9 record heading into this year’s games – and even two teams advancing to the big game isn’t that rare.
Counting this year’s games, two county teams have made it to the state finals five times: Crest and Burns in 1994, Kings Mountain and Shelby in 1998, Crest and Shelby in 2004, and again last year.
“The community’s expectations are always high,” said Crest coach Mark Barnes, whose Chargers are in the state finals for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
And that, Barnes said, is part of the Cleveland County teams’ secret to success.
“What we do and Shelby does and the others, it’s important to Cleveland County,” Barnes said. “Our players are going to hear about it – when they play well, they’ll hear about it, and when they play bad, they’re going to hear about it.
“Those expectations can be kind of heavy for a 15, 16 or 17 year old kid, but they do know what they’re doing is important to the people around them. It sets the bar high.”