Close encounters of a second-season kind.
That’s the sermon being preached this season by sophomore-year Lake Norman High School football coach Jonathan Oliphant.
“I’ve played on a lot of teams,’’ said Oliphant, coming off a 3-9 freshman season spiced by steering the Wildcats into a first-round appearance in the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s smaller-enrollment 4A class playoffs. “And I’ve been around a lot as a coach. These guys just might be the closest group I’ve ever been associated with. We ask a lot of them, and, as a group, they’ve responded well. We’re looking forward to a great season,” he said.
Oliphant is surrounded by a cast consisting of both experience and youth – with a select number of newcomers also tossed into the huddle -as Lake Norman seeks to continue to make expected progress. In addition to the returning players littering the team’s roster, a healthy number of products have also been promoted up the ranks from last year’s undefeated junior varsity team.
“We definitely need to make mention of that group’s success,’’ said Oliphant, referencing the first-ever such perfect season posted by the program’s feeder squad. “We can only hope that some of that carries over with us this year at the varsity level. We’ve all very excited about the upcoming season.”
The bulk of the experience factor resides on the offensive side of the scrimmage line. Careful not to reveal too much of his team’s playbook in order to maintain an element of surprise on the part of the Wildcats’ opponents, Oliphant will be counting heavily on a senior class to take the team’s reins in hand.
The presence of Will Gordon, the top returning leading rusher off last year’s squad, serves to headline the ball-carrying crew. He will be accompanied in that backfield by one of the newest arrivals in the form of former cross-town Pine Lake Prep product Kris Petroski. The latter was the leading ground gainer for the then Pride before suffering a serious season-ending leg injury midway his junior season. He has returned fully recovered for his first season with Lake Norman.
“With Will back there again for us,’’ said Oliphant, “and Kris coming on board, we’re very pleased with our running back situation.”
Experience will also be in place in other key places. Senior returning offensive lineman Austin Reeves will be looking to shoulder the load among his front wall teammates. He is already being sought by several mid-major college programs. Also providing experience, returning senior wide receiver Zach Zipadelli will be serving as a primary target when looking to captain the receiving corps.
New faces will be peppered into the mix as well. Looking to cash in on the momentum winnings from the previous year’s junior varsity success, junior Anthony Limon will climb onboard to take over the quarterbacking duties left vacant by the graduation of last year’s starting signal caller. Also making the move into the varsity ranks will be junior offensive lineman Jake Johnson.
“I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail about our offensive plans,’’ said Oliphant. “Let’s just say that, with the combination of experience we have along with some of the new arrivals, we are definitely making progress on that side of the ball. We just might throw a little bit of everything out there.”
Defensively, the Wildcats will be relying on a den full of youth that Oliphant believes defies a relative lack of varsity-level competition.
“As a group,’’ said Oliphant, whose own personal playing experience derives primarily from the defensive perspective, “they are young but they have some talent. We’ve got a very strong junior class that we will be depending on this year to lead us on defense. We’re confident as coaches that they can get the job done.”
Third-year starting outside linebacker junior Will Sauder returns to anchor the outfit. Sauder has also spent some time as a defensive back as well over the course of his three-year varsity career. Also with some previous playing time in place under his helmet, junior Max Williamson in back to fill a position along the defensive line. New addition in junior Tanner Schmidt will be inserted into a linebacker slot.
The twosome of defensive backs Cri’shon Shepard and Will Kobuszewski each proved their worth when first making the move into the varsity ranks during last season. Shepard, now a sophomore, was the defensive backfield’s leader with his five pass interceptions, while Kobuszewski made an immediate impact when making his varsity-level debut midseason as a then sophomore by picking off an opponent’s pass.
Lake Norman will once again adhere to a three-down lineman scheme when hitting the field on defense.
Like most all other teams, a few concerns are in place as the Wildcats ready for the start of another season.
“You always worry about injuries and staying healthy,’’ said Oliphant, “and you want to eliminate as many mistakes as possible. Those are areas that worry all teams heading into a season. We have high hopes for this year’s team. We’ve had a great offseason with our participation numbers. That reflects the togetherness this team has shown. We hope that shows up out on the field.”
Lake Norman will once again face a challenging schedule. In addition to an aggressive non-conference slate, the Wildcats will once again be competing in the I-Meck Conference that is considered to be one of the most competitive in the state.
Lake Norman will kick off its season in a designated endowment game scheduled to take place at home against Cox Mill Aug. 23.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Austin Reeves: Hard to miss at 6-foot-7 and tipping the official weigh-in scales at 250 pounds, Reeves is among the biggest bodies on the Wildcats’ roster. He’s also among the best. Anchored in place along the offensive line, the senior returning starter has already turned many heads on the college recruiting front. He is expected to provide leadership as well as experience along the team’s front wall.
Will Sauder: Immediately, the returning starter accounts for some of the most experience among all fellow defensive players. Starting since his freshman season, the now junior stands 6-foot-1 and carries his 180 pounds well. He will be aligned as an outside linebacker after already seeing previous ample playing time as both as defensive back on one side of the ball and as a wire receiver on the offensive side.
Cri’shon Shepard: Sudden Impact. The shoe fits. As a first-time, varsity-level player during his freshman season, Shepard burst onto the scene with his piling up of a team-high five interceptions. The sophomore defensive back returns to provide experience to the corps on the pass defense front. At times, due to his knack for catching the football, Shepard may also see some limited time as a wide receiver as well in addition to handling some of the special team duties.
WILDCATS AT A GLANCE
Head coach: Jonathan Oliphant, second season
Oliphant’s record: 3-9
Assistant coaches: Randy Oliphant, Web Brannon, David Johnson, Chris Adkins, Tim Wall, “Hacksaw” Harris, Sean Fitzgerald, Alvin Gibson, Manny Johnson, Dallas Jackson, Tom Cross
Returning starters: Offense, five; defense, four
2018 Record: 3-9 (1-6) 2018 Results West Forsyth, L 26-7
Statesville, W 2-0
South Iredell, L 17-8
North Iredell, W 39-6
West Charlotte, L 40-21
Mallard Creek, L 63-0
Hough, L 55-19
Mooresville, L 38-7
Vance, L 53-0
Hopewell, W 26-22
North Meck, L 28-6
West Charlotte, L 14-7
Aug. 23 vs. Cox Mill
Aug. 30 vs. Statesville
Sept. 6 at South Iredell
Sept. 13 at North Iredell
Sept. 27 vs. West Charlotte*
Oct. 4 at Mallard Creek*
Oct. 11 at Hough*
Oct. 18 vs. Mooresville*
Oct. 25 at Vance*
Nov. 1 vs. Hopewell*
Nov. 8 vs. North Meck* *-I-Meck Conference game