COMMERCE — Commerce coach Michael Brown seemed to remember it like it was yesterday.
“That first (win) was probably the most dramatic,” he recalled when asked about the Tigers’ on-again, off-again pseudo-rivalry with Lincoln County. “They always had really good teams and we had really good teams but we hadn’t been able to knock them off. I was a coach that year .
“They had blocked a field goal at the end that would have won it for us but they ran over the kicker. We got another shot at it and the kick was good the second time [for a 16-15 win] and I just remember being beside myself with excitement and just kind of losing myself in the moment. I threw my headphones and just started going crazy. After about four or five minutes I starting thinking that Coach (Steve) Savage would have my tail if I lost the headphones so I had to go find them."
Did he find them in time?
“Yea, eventually,” he said. “It took a few minutes and I started to worry that they may have gotten broken in all the excitement. But they were still in one piece. And I found them before Coach saw me. Just an unbelievable moment.”
That win would be the first of two wins over the Red Devils that season as the Tigers eventually marched to their second-ever state title. They would win two more times over Lincoln County in the ensuing seasons.
Since then, drought-city. Commerce has lost eight straight to the Red Devils going back to 2003. But if there is a silver lining, there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about the Commerce-Lincoln County 'rivalry' than Brown.
Brown played for the Tigers when they took on the Red Devils in the 1990 Class A Public semifinals [a 34-20 loss]. He has been a coach for the Tigers during 13 more of the 17 overall meetings.
But the two teams have not met on the field since 2011 in the first round of the playoffs, another Lincoln County win, 35-14 in Lincolnton. The two teams will renew the rivalry Friday night at iconic Buddy Bufford Field in the second round of the Class A Public playoffs. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
But will Brown’s knowledge of the Red Devils and the history of the rivalry be useful in 2019? Lincoln County (8-2) is having its best season since winning nine games in 2015 but the Red Devils have not advanced past the second round since a semifinal run in 2012.
Commerce (9-2) actually comes into this one as the program with the most recent success. The Tigers have advanced to the quarterfinals in four of the past five seasons. However, the Red Devils are 8-1 all-time at home vs. the Tigers. The only Commerce win in Lincolnton came in 2001, 13-12.
While few on the current Tigers roster may have witnessed the last time the two teams met, Brown said they are fully aware of the history.
“(The kids) definitely know the history of Lincoln County football,” Brown said. “Anytime you get to play one of the premier teams in the state, it’s exciting. I think our kids are excited about getting a chance to go down there and play. It’s a great high school football atmosphere and I’m happy for them that they get a chance to experience this, especially in the playoffs.”
The 18th edition should be similar to most of the first 17. Both teams still employ run-oriented offenses: Commerce with its patented triple-option and the Red Devils’ with their single-wing formations.
And it will feature one of the better matchups in the classification on Friday with the Commerce offense, which is 8th in Class A averaging 37.3 points per game (411 points) against the Lincoln defense, which is 4th in Class A allowing just 7.6 ppg. The Red Devils offense is 22nd scoring 328 points (32.8 ppg) while the Tigers defense is 22nd allowing 16.2 ppg.
Commerce is led by Nate Ray and Sam Roach, who have combined for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground. Lincoln County is paced by Kolbi Ferguson, who leads Class A Public in rushing with 1,405 yards and a whopping 30 TDs on the season.
“Both teams like to run the ball and I don’t think we’re going to be at the stadium for very long,” Brown said. “This game, like most others, will come down to blocking, tackling, running your offense, and not making mistakes. Every possession, because you may only get the ball two or three times each half, will matter. You can't waste them.
“You can’t beat yourself with penalties and turnovers. We’re just focused on what we do and trying to get better each day. We have a great group of guys who I feel have gotten better each week.”
No matter what happens Friday, Brown was reluctant to call it a stead-fast rivalry, especially considering they haven’t played in eight years. But with both teams joining a revamped Region 8-A next season, it could be the start of something special.
“To be a rivalry you have to have both teams beating each other. We haven’t beaten them much so it’s probably not that big a rivalry to some people,” Brown said. “But since we’ll be in the same region starting next year, who knows. But first, we have to beat them so that we can at least start the conversation.”