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From doormat to dominant: How a program’s turnaround lifted small-town pride

Larry Taylor can’t remember a time when Friday night football – and life in general – has been sweeter at the high school built at the base of Hibriten Mountain in Caldwell County in 1966.

Taylor, 72 and retired from the construction industry, has been on the football chain gang at Hibriten High (Lenoir) for 30 years.

“We (the crew) are getting old, hobbling on the sidelines,” said Taylor, also a key member of the school’s boosters club. “But Friday night, that’s what you do – you go to the football game. It’s always Friday night (spent at) Hibriten.”

He’s moved those chains in lean years – there have been many in the school’s 53-year football history (25 winning seasons, 25 losing, three at .500) – but now must move ’em quicker and way more often as Hibriten has emerged as a state football power over the last decade.

The Panthers (12-0) entered the state 2AA playoffs last Friday as a defending state champion. After a first-round victory, the Panthers have won 27 straight games and are 42-1 since 2016, when it lost in the western 3A regional final to South Point (Belmont).

It’s the same Hibriten that had a three-year stretch in the early 1990s when it went 1-29, lost 27 straight games and winning four games in four years.

But Friday nights in a community that’s about 73 miles northwest of Charlotte are now grand. The Panthers play on a beautiful field just up a hill behind the school. And all the facility upgrades helped change the focus, the atmosphere and — to a large extent, as hoped for — the expectations.

School system and community leaders said back then they wanted any student-athlete — male or female — attending Hibriten to get the most out of that experience.

“It was a combination of a lot of things,” said Chuck Cannon, who spent 18 years at Hibriten as an athlete, assistant coach, or head football coach, and is now the athletics director at Wilkes Central. “You had kids that made the commitment and community support. Go back and look at that place in 1999… and part of it is enthusiasm among lots of people. Like it or not, athletic departments are the front door of the school, and you gotta invest in it.”

The fruits of labor blossomed around 2002 — three years after Cannon, the starting quarterback of the 1979 team that lost in the west 3A final, took over as head coach. His first three teams went 9-23 before then winning 33 of the next 41.

“We finally got a group of kids that bought in and could see what could be done,” said Cannon. “We showed them a vision and a goal of what we could be. There were growing pains, but the kids bought into hard work and building to sustain a program.”

When Cannon resigned after the 2009 season, assistant Clay Lewis — who came to Hibriten in 1989 — took over, and he has taken the program to new heights.

“One thing I will say about Chuck is he built the program the right way,” Lewis said. “We did things the right way. We develop kids in that weight room. It makes you tough … We’ve had some good players over the years, but there’s something to be said about a team working out and working together to put forth that sweat equity through the years … (All of the players) may not be stars of the team or guys you hear about, but they are maybe the freshman who didn’t play a lot on the JVs who worked his tail off so they could be on the field and be part of a successful program.”

It’s a built connection that keeps things on an even keel at Hibriten, where this year’s Northwestern Foothills 2A title was the Panthers’ third straight and eighth since 1979.

Starting center Josh Baker, a senior, was in the second grade when his family moved into the Hibriten community. He grew up watching the Panthers, wanting to be on the field dressed in black and red, and he understands and feels the thread of connection.

“My experience has been out of this world,” he said. “It is an enormous amount of fun to be a football player here … To have kids look up to you the way kids look up to us is humbling. I remember being asked to take a picture by a complete stranger’s son because we play the same position.”

Baker has two younger brothers, Daniel and Adam. Daniel plays on the Panthers junior varsity as a freshman and Adam will be on campus in years.

They know what to expect.

“As a team, we focus on never underestimating any opponent, always give 110 percent and to remain first class win or lose,” Josh Baker said. “Those are the things that keep us grounded, focused and drive to be the best we can be.”

Chris Hobbs

Chris Hobbs, 60, is editor and owner of http://HobbsDailyReport.com, a sports website with a focus of high school coverage in an eight-county area in the Hickory region. He is the dean of prep sports reporters in Western North Carolina — this is his 43rd year — and led prep coverage at The Charlotte Observer for more than 14 years and was a reporter or editor at four other Western N.C. newspapers during his career. Hobbs is semi-retired and lives in Denver, N.C.