Top players, top teams, predictions

Here is the Observer’s annual look at high school football teams in several regional counties: Alexander, Anson, Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Richmond, Rowan, Rutherford and Watauga Counties.

We feature some of the top players and teams from these counties below.

Team Previews

Burns: The Bulldogs’ have won 18 games in the past two years, and should be able to continue to trend upward with 15 starters returning. The Burns’ defense, which allowed 17 points last season, will feature senior LBs Silas Tate (126 tackles), Azari Brown (83 tackles) and junior Cahari Haynes (77 tackles). Also back is senior safety Chatlen Baccus (53 tackles, four interceptions). The Burns offense will have to reload at several key positions, but will lean on sophomore Jeremiah Norris (688 yards rushing, eight touchdowns), junior receiver Ryan Thompson (39 catches, five touchdowns) and senior offensive lineman Jesse Love, to help make plays while younger players develop.

East Lincoln: The Mustangs return 12 starters from a team that went 5-2, but didn’t make the playoffs last spring. East Lincoln should be improved on offense as junior quarterback Tyler Mizzell (1,174 yards passing, 15 touchdowns) is a year older as has playmakers like senior Jeremiah Jones and junior Markell Clark. The Mustangs’ defense returns seven starters, including junior linebackers Ben Cutter (91 tackles) and Landon Glezen as well as defensive lineman Blake Bradford. East Lincoln has a big challenge as they move up to class 3A in the Western Foothills’ Conference with teams like Hickory, Statesville and North Lincoln in the new league.

Maiden: The Blue Devils were 6-0 in the 2021 spring regular season until eventual 2AA state champion Salisbury ended their season with a 52-12 first round playoff loss. This fall, Maiden will have plenty of motivation with 13 starters back, led by a high-powered offense featuring senior quarterback Ethan Rhodes (1,744 yards passing, 14 touchdowns), and junior receiver Chris Culliver (39 catches for 700 yards, four touchdowns). Meanwhile, the Maiden defense is also an experienced group with senior defensive lineman Dru McClough (47 tackles), senior linebacker Aaron Lefevers (45 tackles), and junior defensive lineman D.J. Spring all returning. Maiden is eager to win their second consecutive conference title (now in the Catawba Valley 2A) and prove they can make a playoff run.

Mountain Island Charter: After averaging nine wins per season from 2016-19, Mountain Island Charter struggled, going 2-5 last spring in the COVID-19 shortened season. This season, the Raptors should be improved with 12 starters returning as they enter the new Catawba Shores’ 1A/2A conference. The Mountain Island Charter offense should be able to score plenty of points with senior quarterback Dylan Bisson (1,935 yards, 14 touchdowns) back to direct the unit that features senior receivers Cole Hart (605 yards receiving, four touchdowns), Caleb Patton, and do-it-all athlete Trae Nickelson (504 yards rushing, 227 yards receiving, averaged 30 yards per punt return, 43 yards per kick return). The Raptors’ defense will have to reload a bit, but can lean on senior defensive end Tanner Leeson and senior linebacker Leonard Hadley.

Richmond Senior: The Raiders played only five game last spring, going 4-1 with a second round 4AA playoff loss to Cardinal Gibbons. This year, Richmond Senior — which has averaged at least 10 wins from 2016-19 — looks to get back on track with 10 starters returning. The Raiders will look to senior quarterback Kellen Hood (694 yards passing, eight touchdowns passes, four touchdown runs) to direct an offense behind an experienced offensive line that includes seniors Braxton, Butler (6-3, 320), Jaiden Covington (6-3, 315) and junior Jeff Linton (6-3, 315). The Richmond Senior defense is also a veteran group featuring seniors like defensive tackle J.D. Lampley (East Carolina commit), linebackers Gabe Altman and Mikey Baldwin, and junior defensive back Emerson Wall. Richmond Senior has the experience to contend for the Sandhills’ Athletic conference title and be a factor in the 4A playoffs.

Salisbury: The Hornets have been one of the top teams in the state over the past two seasons, going 22-5 overall with a state runner-up (2019) and state championship in that span. Salisbury has a chance to repeat with 12 starters returning, led by a dominant defense that allowed only 10 points per game last spring. The Hornets’ defense returns the entire back seven (linebackers/defensive backs) led by senior linebackers Jalon Walker (Georgia commit) and Jaiden Gaither, defensive lineman Nick Hall (2AA state championship game, most valuable player on defense) and defensive back Zae Neal. The Salisbury offense should also be solid with a heavy dose of junior running back JiMikaah Wells (1,472 yards rushing, 16 touchdowns) as sophomores like quarterback Mike Geter and receiver Deuce Walker, grow into bigger roles.

Shelby: Shelby has been one of the most dominant teams in the state over the past decade, averaging 12 wins with six state championships in the last eight years, but struggled to live up to their lofty standard going 6-3 last spring. The Golden Lions return 12 starters, led by their defensivee line featuring seniors like Malacki Hamrick (North Carolina commit), Santana Hopper (major, Division I recruit), Demario Allen (5.5 sacks) and sophomore Jaden Pierce (47 tackles). If the Shelby offense — led by junior quarterback Daylin Lee, senior running back Marquis Adams and senior receiver Luke Williams — can put consistent points on the board, the Golden Lions will be conference (Southern Piedmont 1A/2A) and 2A state championship contenders again.

South Point: The Red Raiders return 16 starters from a team that went 5-2 last spring. South Point will run the ball a lot, as usual, featuring senior running back Tyson Riley (404 yards rushing), and quarterback Cam Medlock (309 yards rushing). Up front, South Point will rely on senior Jacob Patterson (6-3, 250) and Sullivan Absher (6-6, 280). The Red Raiders’ defense is also a veteran group, featuring senior linebacker Ryan Harris (80 tackles), and senior defensive lineman Xarique Culbreath as well as junior defensive end Aiden Ramirez and junior defensive back Will Ross. South Point has a new challenge as they move up to 3A (from 2A) and will look to prove they can contend with Gaston County’s best in the Big South Conference.

Watauga: The Pioneers overachieved last spring, winning the Northwestern 3A/4A conference with a team that returned only four starters. This season, Watauga has 12 starters back in the lineup, including seven on offense. The Pioneers’ vaunted rushing attack should keep rolling with senior Carter Everett (461 yards rushing) and juniors Carlton Horine (quarterback) and Trey Thompson running behind a veteran offensive line led by senior Grant Lawrence. The Watauga defense, which returns five starters, should also be strong with the NW 3A/4A conference player of the year, linebacker Orlando Leon (35 tackles) returning. Also back is defensive end Isiah Shirley (44 tackles, 4.5 sacks) to lead a unit that surrendered only 16 points per game.

West Rowan: The Falcons return 15 starters and 31 lettermen this fall. West Rowan should be able to score consistently with senior quarterback Noah Loeblien (1,200 yards passing, 17 touchdowns) back to lead the unit. The Falcons’ defense is led by all-state defensive lineman Josh Noble. West Rowan has the experience to contend in the South Piedmont 3A conference.

Players to Watch

Ben Cutter, East Lincoln, 6-1, 210, Jr., LB: Tackling-machine already has 227 stops in his two years as the Mustangs’ middle linebacker, with 91 tackles in seven games last spring.

Eli Hall, Crest, 6-4, 275, Sr., DL: Wake Forest commit had 40 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks and 19 hurries last spring.

Malacki Hamrick, Shelby, 6-4, 205, Sr., DL: University of North Carolina commit is constant problem for opposing offenses with 73 tackles, including 15 stops for loss and five sacks for a Shelby defense loaded with talent with major, Division I recruit, Santana Hopper on the same defensive line.

Orlando Leon, Watauga, 6-1, 195, Sr., DL: The reigning Northwestern 3A/4A defensive player of the year is two-way standout with 35 tackles (10 tackles for loss), three sacks while also catching 12 passes for 226 yards and five touchdowns at tight end.

Trae Nickleson, Mountain Island Charter, 5-9, 145, Sr., ATH/KR/PR: The Raptors’ senior averaged 128 yards of total offense per game in the spring. He averaged 10 yards per carry, 16 yards per receptions, 30 yards per punt return and 43 yards per kick return.

Luke Rector, Draughn, 6-4, 295, Sr.: All-state performer had 37 pancake blocks in seven games last spring.

Ethan Rhodes, Maiden, 6-3, 195, Sr., QB: Blue Devils’ senior has passed for 3,971 yards and 43 touchdowns in the last two seasons.

Silas Tate, Burns, 6-2, 215, Sr., LB: The Southwestern 2A Conference defensive player of the year (126 tackles) forms a dynamic one-two punch with junior linebacker, Cahari Haynes (77 tackles).

Dakota Twitty, Thomas Jefferson Academy, 6-5, 215, Sr., WR: University of Virginia commit a big target with 35 catches for 521 yards and five touchdowns (in seven games), also had two interceptions on defense.

Jalon Walker, Salisbury, 6-2, 225, Sr., LB: The University of Georgia commit had 97 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, eight sacks and two fumble recoveries for the 2AA state champions,

Regional High School Football Players — Up Next

Dylan Bisson, Mountain Island Charter, 5-11, 170, Sr., QB: The Raptors’ quarterback averaged 322 yards passing in his first year as the starter, passing for 1,935 yards and 15 touchdowns, while rushing for three more scores last spring.

Carter Everett, Watauga, 5-11, 170, Sr., RB/K: The Pioneers’ senior plays the rare role of his team’s kicker, punter (37.1 yards per punt) and running back (461 yards rushing, six touchdowns).

Blaine Fulbright, East Burke, 5-9, 180, Sr., RB: The Cavaliers’ running back (Burke County player of the year) is back to grind out the tough yards after rushing for 1,154 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.

Noah Loeblien, West Rowan, 6-0, 175, Sr., QB: The Falcons’ all-conference, signal caller will air it out again after throwing for over 1,200 yards, 17 touchdowns, while rushing for three more scores last season.

Amari McArthur, North Rowan, 6-2, 180, Jr., WR: Cavaliers’ all-conference receiver had a breakout season with 28 catches for 445 yards and five touchdowns last spring.

Jaycob Neely, Forestview, 6-1, 195, Sr.: The Jaguars’ senior had 64 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six hurries, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two blocked punts in seven games last spring.

A.J. Richardson, Kings Mountain, 5-11, 245, Jr., LB/DE: The Mountaineers’ junior (58 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, five sacks) looks to step right into the playmaking role of former Kings Mountain star and reigning Big South Conference defensive player of the year Javari Rice-Wilson.

Kaiden Robinson, Bunker Hill, 6-1, 185, Sr., LB: The reigning Northwest Foothills’ 2A conference defensive player of the year had 103 tackles and six forced fumbles, while rushing for 395 yards and six touchdowns.

Justin Rocquemore, Stuart Cramer, 5-11, 195, Jr., QB: The Storm’s quarterback had a big sophomore campaign accounting for more than 2,300 yards (1,850 yards passing, 473 yards) rushing and 20 touchdowns.

D.J. Watkins, Albemarle, 6-3, 265, Jr.: The Bulldogs’ all-conference defensive end had 74 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks in his last full season.

Conference Predictions

Big South Conference

  1. South Point; 2. Kings Mountain; 3. Crest; 4. Ashbrook; 5. Hunter Huss; 6. Forestview; 7. Stuart Cramer; 8. North Gaston.

Catawba Shores’ 1A/2A Conference

  1. Mountain Island Charter; 2. Winston-Salem Prep; 3. Community School of Davidson; 4. Bishop McGuinness; 5. Winston-Salem Carver; 6. Pine Lake Prep; 7. Christ the King.

Catawba Valley 2A Conference

  1. Maiden; 2. Newton Conover; 3. West Lincoln; 4. Bunker Hill; 5. Bandys; 6. Lincolnton; 7. East Burke; 8. West Caldwell.

Central Carolinas’ Conference

  1. Salisbury; 2. Thomasville; 3. North Rowan; 4. East Davidson; 5. West Davidson; 6. Lexington; 7. South Davidson.

Mountain Foothills 7, 2A Conference

  1. Hendersonville; 2. R.S. Central; 3. Polk County; 4. Chase; 5. Brevard; 6. Patton; 7. East Rutherford.

Northwestern 3A/4A Conference

  1. Watauga; 2. Alexander Central; 3. Hibriten; 4. Freedom; 5. South Caldwell; 6. Ashe County.

Rocky River Conference

  1. Monroe; 2. Parkwood; 3. Anson County; 4. West Stanly; 5. Forest Hills.

Sandhills’ Athletic Conference

  1. Richmond Senior; 2. Scotland County; 3. Lee County; 4. Pinecrest; 5. Hoke County; 6. Southern Lee; 7. Union Pines.

South Piedmont 3A Conference

  1. West Rowan; 2. Central Cabarrus; 3. Northwest Cabarrus; 4. Concord; 5. Carson; 6. East Rowan; 7. South Rowan.

South Piedmont 1A/2A Conference

1. Shelby; 2. Burns; 3. Thomas Jefferson Academy; 4. East Gaston; 5. Bessemer City; 6. Cherryville; 7. Highland Tech.

Western Foothills’ Athletic Conference/3A

  1. Statesville; 2. East Lincoln; 3. North Lincoln; 4. Hickory; 5. St. Stephens; 6. Fred T. Foard; 7. West Iredell; 8. North Iredell.

Yadkin Valley 1A Conference

  1. Jay M. Robinson; 2. Mount Pleasant; 3. North Stanly; 4. South Stanly; 5. Union Academy; 6. Albemarle.

Preseason All-Area Team


QB: Ethan Rhodes, Maiden, 6-3, 195, Sr.

RB: Justin Hill, East Gaston, 6-1, 215, Sr.

RB: Cameron Lackey, Alexander Central, 5-9, 170, Sr.

RB: JiMikaah Wells, Salisbury, 5-9, 225, Jr.

WR: Chris Culliver, Maiden, 6-3, 180, Jr.

WR: Cole Hart, Mountain Island Charter, 6-0, 175, Sr.

WR: Dakota Twitty, Thomas Jefferson Academy, 6-5, 215, Sr.

OL: Sullivan Absher, South Point, 6-6, 280, Jr.

OL: Braxton Butler, Richmond Senior, 6-3, 320, Sr.

OL: Christian Contreras, Hibriten, 6-3, 300, Sr.

OL: Grant Lawrence, Watauga, 6-3, 290, Sr.

OL: Josh Noble, West Rowan, 6-4, 290, Sr.

OL: Luke Rector, Draughn, 6-4, 295, Jr.

ATH: Kellen Hood, Richmond Senior, 6-1, 182, Sr.


DL: Eli Hall, Crest, 6-4, 275, Sr.

DL: Santana Hopper, Shelby, 6-2, 290, Sr.

DL: J.D. Lampley, Richmond Senior, 6-3, 292, Sr.

DL: Rico Walker, Hickory, 6-4, 235, Jr.

DL/LB: Malacki Hamrick, Shelby, 6-4, 205, Sr.

LB: Xavion Coulter, Newton Conover, 6-0, 225, Sr.

LB: Ben Cutter, East Lincoln, 6-1, 210, Jr.

LB: Kaiden Robinson, Bunker Hill, 6-1, 185, Sr.

LB: Silas Tate, Burns, 6-2, 215, Sr.

LB: Jalon Walker, Salisbury, 6-2, 225, Sr.

DB: Chatlen Baccus, Burns, 5-11, 175, Sr.

DB: Jaxon Barbee, South Stanly, 5-9, 165, Sr.

DB: Zae Neal, Salisbury, 5-11, 180, Sr.

DB: Quaidyn “Duder” Tugman, Hibriten, 6-2, 170, Sr.

ATH: Orlando Leon, Watauga, 6-1, 195, Sr.


K: Carson Foard, Maiden, 5-7, 145, Jr.

P: Carter Everett, Watauga, 5-11, 170, Sr.

SPEC: Trae Nickleson, Mountain Island Charter, 5-9, 145, Sr.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ethan Rhodes, Maiden, 6-3, 195, Sr.

Defensive Player of the Year: Jalon Walker, Salisbury, 6-2, 225, Sr., LB.

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