BURNSVILLE – Polk County gave itself the chance Friday night that few expected them to have.
Mountain Heritage left E.L. Briggs Stadium with its perfect record intact and a Western Highlands Conference championship in hand, but the Cougars’ 42-31 victory on Senior Night proved anything but easy.
Polk County led 14-0 less than five minutes into the game, trailed by just six at the half and fought back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit to within three points early in the fourth.
But as has been the case for nearly every team in Western North Carolina the past four years, the Wolverines found no way to stop Mountain Heritage quarterback Trey Robinson. The senior moved into eighth place on North Carolina’s career rushing list with a 315-yard, three-touchdown performance, also throwing three touchdown passes for good measure and picking up key yards every time the Cougars had to have them.
And the Cougars (9-0, 4-0) needed every yard and score.
“What an effort by our football team, to come into their place and play an undefeated football team and play our guts out,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “We get a break here or there and we may win by 10 or 12. We fought until the end.”
Polk County (6-4, 2-2) unveiled a pair of offensive changes, shifting Dillon Overholt to wide receiver, with Avery Edwards at quarterback, and altering its usual offensive formation, lining up two slot receivers and two wide receivers in a flexbone look. The moves reaped dividends as the Wolverines posted the highest point total allowed by Mountain Heritage this season and gained nearly 300 total yards.
“Very proud of Avery Edwards and what he did,” Ollis said. “And Dillon Overholt being the force he was for us. We just did a lot of things well. We changed up offensively and I think we may have found something we’re going to be good at. Certainly putting Overholt on the edge brings a lot of attention and opens up things in other areas.”
The changes looked especially good early.
Chase Bishop returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to the Mountain Heritage 7, setting the stage for Bryson Seay’s 2-yard touchdown plunge less than two minutes into the game. The Cougars then incurred three penalties on their first drive and had to punt, giving Polk the ball at its 26.
On the first play there Edwards and Overholt teamed on a picture-perfect 74-yard touchdown, Overholt racing past the Mountain Heritage bench, catching Edwards’ long pass in stride near the 30 and easily motoring on to the end zone. Luis Hernandez added his second extra point and the Wolverines led 14-0 with 7:17 still to play in the first period.
It was awfully quiet in Burnsville at that point.
But the Cougars responded with a touchdown on their next drive, a Robinson 30-yard pass to Mike McCoy Jr. on a 4th-and-11, then tied the game with 4:18 left in the second period, driving 99 yards (really 99 2/3 yards after a stellar Luke Sellers punt) in 11 plays, the possession aided by two face mask penalties against the Wolverines (a recurring theme that made for a lot of discussion between Wolverine coaches and game officials). Robinson hit Alston Randolph with a 5-yard touchdown toss with 4:18 left, then added the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14.
The Cougars recovered an onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff and scored again with 1:05 left as McCoy made a leaping catch in the end zone on an 8-yard toss from Robinson. The 2-point conversion failed, but the Cougars had a 20-14 lead after holding the ball for almost nine consecutive minutes on the two drives.
Robinson’s 77-yard touchdown run on the first play of the third period boosted Mountain Heritage to a 28-14 lead and ended a stretch covering the two quarters where the Cougars ran 22 plays to Polk County’s three and scored 22 points. That ultimately shifted the game’s momentum to the home team.
“We needed to find a way to stop them in the second half and weren’t able to do that,” Ollis said. “We got beat for two scores. We felt like we had that taken care of and that hurt us a bit. But other than getting beat for those two scores, we didn’t play that badly on defense. That is a football team rushing for about 400 yards a game.”
Yet Polk County did not go quietly into the cool night. Hernandez drilled a 41-yard field goal on Polk County’s next possession to make it 28-17, and the Wolverines matched the Cougars with their own onsides kick recovery, Lukas Tipton doing so at midfield. Dillon Knighton’s 33-yard scamper took the Wolverines to the 3, and Braden Miller scored on a 1-yard dive moments later to make it 28-23 with 4:12 left in the third period.
Mountain Heritage answered with a Robinson 27-yard scoring run, but back came Polk County, driving 56 yards in seven plays, Edwards scoring on a 21-yard option keeper. Edwards then hit Wyatt Derkach with a 2-point conversion to make it 34-31 with 10:10 left in the game.
But the Cougars would seal the game with a 10-play, 57-yard drive, taking almost five minutes off the clock. Robinson scoring from 10 yards out and added the 2-point conversion. An interception on Polk County’s next possession ended any hopes the Wolverines had of another rally.
Edwards finished 7-of-18 for 142 yards and also rushed for 31 yards. Overholt had three receptions for 96 yards. Seay led Polk County with 35 yards on 10 carries as the Cougars bottled up leading rusher Elijah Sutton, holding him to five yards on two carries.
“We’ve got a lot to build on from this game,” Ollis said. “I think it’s a great thing that even though we lost this game, we can build on it going into our final home game next week and on into the playoffs.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the way we fought. You could tell our players were disappointed at the end of the ballgame, and that speaks volumes.”