By CHRIS HOBBS
ST. STEPHENS INDIANS
Conference: Northwestern 3A-4A.
Head coach: Wayne Hicks (19-38, 5 years; 19-38 at St. Stephens, 5 years).
Last season’s records: 5-6 overall; 4-3 Northwestern 3A-4A, tied for third place.
Last season’s results: Bandys, L 40-42, 2 OTs; at Bunker Hill, W 35-7; at Maiden, L 7-28; Foard, L 34-55; at FREEDOM, L 0-36; McDOWELL, W 19-17; at W. CALDWELL, L 21-33; WATAUGA, W 26-21; at ALEXANDER CENTRAL, L 21-59; S. CALDWELL, W 56-7; HICKORY, W 22-16.
SCHOOL FOOTBALL HISTORY
Last season in state playoffs: 2015, 3A.
Last state playoff victory: 2015, d. Canton Pisgah 14-13, first round.
All-time state playoff bids: 10.
Conference titles(or shares) since 1980, last: None.
BY THE NUMBERS
Returning starters: 12.
Returning lettermen: 18.
Returning starters: 6.
Leading returning rusher: Xavian King, 5-10, 155, Sr. (205-1,061, 13 TDs).
Leading returning passer: None.
Leading returning receiver: Zach Lee, 6-4, 180, Jr. (12-236, 3 TDs).
Other key returnees: Chance Benfield, 6-1, 195, WR, Sr.; Blake Baker, 5-6, 150, RB, Sr.; Blake Holsclaw, 6-4, 310, OL, Jr.; Matthew Towsend, 6-3, 225, OL, Sr.
Top newcomers: X’Zayvion Huitt, 5-7, 150, QB, Jr.; Connor Williams, 6-3, 180, QB, Soph.
Returning starters: 6.
Players to watch: Chance Benfield, 6-1, 195, LB, Sr.; Nathaniel Vera, 5-10, 175, DB, Sr.; X’Zayvion Huitt, 5-7, 150, DB, Jr.; Blake Baker, 5-6, 150, LB, Sr.; Blake Holsclaw, 6-4, 310, DL, Jr.; Matthew Towsend, 6-3, 225, DL, Sr.
There are 17 seniors back from a team that, by all accounts, should have made the state playoffs a year ago but didn’t after tying Hickory and Freedom for third place in the league. The Indians missed out in the mix of the first-time-used MaxPreps rankings impacting who got in and who did not.
St. Stephens won three of its final four games, which included a gutsy home win over Watauga, and the Indians have 12 returning starters (6 on each side of the ball) as head coach Wayne Hicks begins his sixth season on Springs Road.
The Indians traditionally have at least one feature back – a potential 1,000-yard rusher – and they return RB Xavian King, who ran for 1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
The biggest question mark offensively is who will step up and try to play a role at QB that was handled well last season by Justin Bullock (1,341 yards passing, 14 TDs).
Chance Benfield and Zach Lee return at WR and a sophomore, Connor Williams, will get the nod behind center.
With Williams trying to get comfortable, King could be a 20-to-30 carry man in St. Stephens’ offense.
Defensively, the Indians gave up 321 points last season with Benfield and Nathaniel Vera as its leaders. They have two 300-pounders on the defensive front, Blake Beasley and Matthew Townsend.
After going 5-6 last season, St. Stephens has the potential to perhaps reverse that (6-5) or better, depending on how well its seniors stick together and if they can find someone besides King to help carry the load.
Blake Baker, who made big plays offensive and defensively last season – especially over the final five or six weeks – is a player to watch because he appears to give the Indians a certain level of energy and intensity that spreads.
The Indians have reached seven wins or more only three times in the previous 26 seasons (7-6 in 2015, 7-5 in 2008 and 7-4 in 2001), so that’d be a nice goal – along with a postseason bid — for those seniors as St. Stephens has gone 15-20 in their first three seasons.