HAMLIN — Second year Lincoln County head coach Bradley Likens hasn’t been afraid to set the bar high for his football team heading into the 2021 season.
Since the school opened in 2006 the Panthers have only finished with a record above .500 one time which came in 2018 when they finished 8-2, but they were not eligible for the Class AA playoffs that season due to not playing the necessary amount of AA teams.
LCHS is coming off a 4-4 record in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season but returns a boat load of talent from that team this season, which has Likens and the rest of the Panthers eyeing the school’s first ever berth in the state football playoffs.
“I feel really good about this year’s team. We’ve got a lot of guys that have some experience in our offense and defense and things are really starting to come together and are starting to click,” Likens said. “The expectations for us and that our kids have is to do something that has not been done before. These kids are bought into it and have sold out for it. If we don’t make the playoffs or have a playoff worthy season then it wasn’t really a success for us.”
Back to lead the Panthers in his senior season is arguable one of the top two-way players in Class AAA in senior Nolan Shimp. Last season, Shimp was named to the Class AAA Second Team All-State squad by the West Virginia Sportswriters Association as a linebacker after he turned in 92 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks in only eight games played.
Offensively, Shimp did a little bit of everything for the Panthers in 2020 as he filled in at quarterback at times for the injured Gabe Bates and ran for 298 yards and three scores and threw for two more touchdowns in the air.
“Offensively and defensively Nolan is going to be huge for us again this year,” Likens said. “He’s kind of the heartbeat of our team, other kids seem to go as he goes. He’s had a big offseason. He was all-state last year but he’s even bigger, stronger, and faster this year. He’s moved to tight end for us offensively and will be there at mike linebacker on defense. I’m excited to see what happens with him this season.”
Shimp isn’t the only All-State selection returning for his senior season, as dynamic running back Isaiah Smith is back in the backfield for LCHS after he turned in a big season for the Panthers in 2020.
In eight games a season ago Smith toted the ball 175 times for 1,254 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 156 rushing yards per game and topped to 100-yard mark six times.
“Isaiah (Smith) is going to need to be huge for us again this season just like he was last year,” Likens said. “We’re going to ask a lot out of him. A full season, a full off-season. He’s bigger and faster as well, he’s improved himself and gained a step from last year. I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Smith is also a receiving threat out of the backfield as he finished 2020 with 145 yards and one receiving score but will have his quarterback fully healthy entering the new season as Gabe Bates returns as signal caller for the Panthers.
Bates played in parts of six games a season ago in what was his first season under center but battled injuries all season long according to Likens. He finished the season completing 33 of 52 passes for 330 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions.
“Gabe is healthy now and has actually had a full off-season and got to play in 7 on 7’s and things like that to be able to see different coverages and different defenses,” Likens said. “It being only his third year playing football and his second year playing quarterback so this offseason was huge for him. We’re excited to see what he can do.”
Other guys that will see action at skill positions is senior fullback Luke Adkins who scored two touchdowns in 2020 while Colin Miller and Isaiah Koontz return at wide receiver.
Up front on the offensive line, Likens says that senior Takota Lawrence (5’11”, 260 lbs.) is back and will be the main anchor for the Panthers up front.
“We are excited to have Takota back leading that group up front,” Likens said. “He kind of took a backseat to Nathan Baker last year but this year that’s his group up front and we’re excited to see how he can lead those guys.”
Senior Brody Hoover (6’1”, 270 lbs.) and junior Ian Callahan (6’1”, 251 lbs.) will also be key pieces on the Panther o-line.
Defensively, Shimp of course will anchor that side of the ball at middle linebacker but he will be joined at the other linebacker spot by Luke Adkins. Adkins had 51 tackles as a junior.
In the secondary, Miller and Koontz both return and after starting in 2020. Miller finished second on the team with 58 tackles while Koontz turned in 38 tackles and one interception.
In the interior on the defensive line Walker Adkins will be relied upon at tackle while seniors Cameron May and Dustin Jeffers will be wreaking havoc at the defensive end positions.
After competing in Class AA for the past several seasons, the Lincoln County jumped back up to Class AAA before the start of the 2020 season after the most recent change in classifications by the WVSSAC.
The 2021 schedule reflects the jump to the state’s largest class as the Panthers scheduled six games against Class AAA opponents (Princeton, Hurricane, Ripley, Oak Hill, Riverside, and Greenbrier East) in order to be eligible for the Class AAA postseason.
“Playing a 6-team AAA schedule this year will be a challenge for our kids, but I think it’s a challenge they are looking forward to,” Likens said. “They are not the type of kids that are going to run and hide from competition. They are going to step up and they are going to answer the bell. I think our staff has done a great job of preparing these guys to play a AAA schedule.”
Other opponents on the 10 game schedule are Class AA opponents Roane County, Clay County, and Pt. Pleasant as well as a game at Raceland High School out of Kentucky.
The Panthers will kickoff the new season on Friday, Aug. 27 against Princeton in a 7:30 p.m. start at Lions Club Field in Hamlin.