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Middle school title game: Shelby motivated by 2019 loss as it seeks to win 2021 spring title on Wednesday

By Richard Walker

When Justin Bowden became Shelby Middle School’s football coach in the fall of 2019, he brought a new offensive system and was determined to lead the Blue Devils to their first Tri-County Conference championship since 2014.

The new offensive system is in humming along in its second season and Shelby gets another chance at that title on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. against East Rutherford at Shelby High’s Blanton Stadium.

“We’ve got a great group of kids,” Bowden said. “Losing last year motivates this year’s team but also myself. I felt like I got out coached. And I know that’s hard for a coach to say. But I felt it and was really determined to do better this season.”

With 14 seventh-graders back who suffered the 16-6 loss to Burns in the 2019 championship, Shelby has returned to the season that was pushed into the winter and spring of 2021 by the pandemic with a vengeance and more strength – literally and figuratively.

In the offseason, Bowden says Shelby Middle School raised $3,000 for a weight room that improved his team’s overall physical strength.

The Shelby Middle School sidelines during a 47-6 win at Crest earlier this season.

“When we got to come back after COVID, those kids were excited about being in the weight room and they saw the improvement it gave them,” Bowden said.

On the field, Shelby rolled up 181 points to only six for its opposition. That includes a 27-0 home win over second-place East Rutherford on March 10.

But Bowden says his Blue Devils’ players remember the only points they yielded – on a “flukey jump ball” touchdown reception in the third quarter of a 47-6 win at Crest.

Shelby’s success has been led by eighth-grade running back/slot back/cornerback Tristan Tate.

Other Blue Devils’ standouts include eighth-grade wide receiver Eli Falls, eighth-grade linebacker Nick Norris and seventh-grade quarterback Lan Farmer.

“When I got here, they hadn’t been running the same system as the high school ran,” Bowden said. Shelby head “coach (Michael) Wilbanks was involved in my hiring and we’re running the spread offense just like the high school.”

Bowden’s assistant coaches are Steve Degree, Luico Holland, Jeff Ross, Tyrone Dover and former Shelby High quarterback Keith Brooks.

“I’m very fortunate to have that many assistants,” Bowden said. “They do a great job. I just steer the ship.”

As any coach would tell you, playing a team for the second time in a season creates its own set of concerns.

“Playing them a second time at home is a worry,” Bowden said. “They’ve got first-year head coach Brock Helton and he’s done a good job with them. We just have to be locked in and be ready to play.”

2021 winter/spring Tri-County football standings:

Shelby 5-0
East Rutherford 5-1
Burns 3-2
Crest 3-2
Chase 2-4
R-S Central 1-4
Kings Mountain 0-6

Previous Tri-County Conference championship games (2002-19):
2002 — Shelby 20, Burns 6
2003 — Lincolnton 38, Chase 0
2004 — Shelby 52, Pumpkin Center 6
2005 — Crest 35, Burns 20
2006 — Crest 27, Burns 0
2007 — Crest 58, Burns 34
2008 — Shelby 27, Kings Mountain 8
2009 — Shelby 27, Burns 6
2010 — Crest 14, Shelby 7
2011 — Crest 20, Shelby 12
2012 — Kings Mountain 48, Shelby 22
2013 — Shelby 26, R-S Central 12
2014 — Shelby 8, Crest 0
2015 — Kings Mountain 24, Crest 13
2016 — Kings Mountain 26, Shelby 18
2017 — Crest 22, Kings Mountain 14
2018 — Burns 27, Kings Mountain 0
2019 — Burns 16, Shelby 6

… Lincoln County schools didn’t compete in the Tri-County Conference this season, instead playing a county-only schedule this school year that included a winter and spring football schedule. Those four schools plan to return to the Tri-County for the 2021-22 school year.

2021 winter/spring Lincoln County football standings:

East Lincoln 7-0
West Lincoln 4-3
Lincolnton 2-5
North Lincoln 1-6

March 23 championship game: East Lincoln 28, West Lincoln 0