In many ways, Polk County’s remarkable football playoff run feels like the blueprint for the future of the program.
From the depths of a 3-8 regular season that included numerous injuries and a six-game losing streak emerged a Wolverine squad that easily handled a must-win game at Madison, then went on the road to knock off favored playoff opponents at East Wilkes and North Surry. The Wolverines were also more than competitive in a 21-7 loss at Starmount, a third-round tussle that matched the deepest postseason run in Polk County history.
Those final four games, and the manner in which the Wolverines approached them, may serve as a guiding light for the future, says head coach Bruce Ollis, who has turned his focus to 2019 with the lessons of 2018 not forgotten.
“Our players absolutely rose to the challenge, and I think the thing that was most rewarding for me is how disappointed our coaches and players were after we all lost to Starmount,” Ollis said. “Starmount was a quality football team, there’s no doubt about that. You get to the third round, you’re pretty good.
“But our record was not emblematic of the way our season finished. Would I like to have started better? Yeah, certainly. I think most guys would say that. But it was a little bit like the way life works. I mean sometimes you may be dealt a bag full of lemons and you have to make lemonade. So that’s kind of what we did. It just took a lot of a little bit longer to make ours.”
The sweet taste of Polk’s postseason fortune helped wash away the memories of a regular season unlike many. Already staring at a challenging non-conference schedule, the Wolverines lost leading rusher Elijah Sutton after the season-opening win at Chase, then lost Bryson Seay for several games, Hayden Shumate for a few as well and a handful of other players for a range of contests. Freshmen such as Bryce Jergenson and Steven Chupp wound up playing far more varsity minutes than expected.
Polk endured that six-game losing streak in the wake of the win at Chase, narrowly missing opportunities to win at R-S Central and East Henderson and at home against Owen before routing Avery. Among the losses were setbacks to Pisgah, East Rutheford and National Christian Academy, the Maryland-based squad loaded with college prospects that became a late addition to the schedule. The Wolverines also fell to Western Highlands Conference foes Mitchell and Mountain Heritage late in the season, capping one of the toughest schedule of any 1A team in the state.
The 2019 schedule is shaping up to be challenging as well, but perhaps nothing like the 2018 slate.
“I still like lining up and playing a lot of tough guys,” Ollis said. “When we lost the Landrum game, I couldn’t find anybody to schedule us. Nobody would schedule us, so that’s why we played National Christian Academy. We found out they had a pretty good team. Pisgah was pretty good. East Rutherford probably had their best team maybe in school history. And as a result of that, we took lumps early and you know as well as I do that winning breeds confidence and it’s difficult sometimes to develop that when you’re not winning.
“What you’ve got to keep doing is keep plugging and keep working hard at practice and in the weight room and try and develop that winning mindset that goes along with being successful. From a coaching standpoint, there’s a fine line between pushing them too hard or being too easy on them. I think the worst thing a coach can do is to feel sorry for himself or his team. We can bemoan the fact that we had a lot of injuries and a lot of adversity to overcome, but we didn’t talk about that a whole lot. That was not a big topic of conversation because you’ve got to dance with who brung you, so to speak.
“It was next man up and we’ve got to get somebody else ready to play if somebody goes down. And I didn’t want our players to perseverate on that and think, well, this is the reason we’re not winning. It’s kind of the way life works sometimes. You get kicked in the teeth and you’re gonna get back up and you’re gonna finish. And that’s the best thing I can say about this team is that we finished awfully strong even though we faced some tumultuous times during the regular season.”
Ollis definitely feels that finish could become a spark that helps Polk County return to battling for WHC titles every season, making deep playoff runs and winning double-digit games. To that end, he conducted exit interviews with every player in the program after the end of the season, part of a broader effort rooted in program building.
“I’m trying to become a better coach by understanding our players better,” he said. “And I think it’s kind of like people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think our players respond, and most people do, when you have an emotional connection with them. We’re trying to do that better as a football staff and I think that’ll bode well for us.
“My goal right now as a coach, certainly I want to win worse than anybody. But I think it behooves me to make sure that the young guys that enter our program leave as better men when they’re done. And if they’re doing that, they’re going to be better football players by the time they graduate, they’re going to be contributors. And it’s going to mean something to them when they come back.”
Ollis has also spent time talking with coaches such as Tarboro’s Jeff Craddock and studied programs such as Murphy, which captured the state 1AA championship. While Craddock had the chance to coach a once-in-a-generation player in Todd Gurley, now an NFL star, he shared with Ollis that he has built the Tarboro program around players who have made a commitment to the program’s ideals. The same holds true in Murphy, where head coach David Gentry has the Bulldogs vying for a state title nearly every season.
It’s where Ollis wants Polk County’s program to be.
“You win high school football games with the average players who overachieve,” he said. “You’re very fortunate if you have a kid that’s a Division I player or even players that are going to go off and play college football. Look at Murphy this season. How many of those guys are going to go off and play college football? Probably not a lot. But, boy, they’re hanging state championship banners. I think that was their ninth state championship and Coach Gentry’s eighth. So they’re doing something right. And there’s a lot of tradition.
“And that’s the kind of culture we’re trying to to cultivate here, where we’re just rolling them through and we’re reloading and you don’t always have to reload with armor-piercing bullets. If your guys are bought in, and they’re all in to what you’re selling, then you can win with average players who overachieve. And that’s something that’s the mark of football programs that are continually successful.”
A key part of that success is a commitment to Polk’s offseason workout program, Ollis noted.
“To me, offseason commitment is huge,” he said. “I can hold up Cameron Blackwell a little bit about all that he did in the offseason that put him in a position to be a contributor through our football program. He just decided to make himself better and he got faster, he got bigger, he got stronger and, as a result, when his opportunity presented itself, he took advantage of it.
“I can hold him up as a beacon for that and let those guys that are maybe second team going into the spring or backups know that here’s what can happen for you if you apply yourself, if you work a little bit. It’s just like being a good student, just like being a good person, you’ve got to work at it.”
Ollis reflected on several other aspects of Polk County’s 2018 campagin:
- “Lucas Tipton and Cameron Blackwell really stepped up at fullback. We felt like we had three good fullbacks when Bryson came back. Cam did a great job for us at linebacker and Lucas Tipton helped us at linebacker some, he helped us at drop end, he helped us at slot, he helped us at fullback. He was a true utility guy.”
- “I felt like that Mitchell Yoder really developed into a very talented player. He was our MVP voted on by the players and well-deserved. Rushed for over 1000 yards and wound up being a really good player in the secondary for us. He became kind of our home run hitter on the ground. We would turn around and pitch the ball to him a lot of times when we needed a first down or needed a big play.”
- “I felt like our play up front on both sides of the ball was excellent this season. I felt like we were as good on the offensive line as anybody around and they jelled very well together. We broke the school record for rushing this year. We rushed for 3,445 yards, a record that had been in place since 2004. That’s a source of pride for those guys. Those guys up front were responsible for that.”
- “Avery Edwards came on and really played well at the end of the year. We discussed that during the season where I said Avery, if you’ll start grading out or coming close to grading out, we’ll win. I stayed on him and he continued to improve. And you know when we started eliminating turnovers and making real good decisions, our football fortunes ticked up and he was he was really responsible for that. He never got to the point where he just threw his hands up when we were losing. I think he really continued to show leadership. He was our Mr. Wolverine winner which is emblematic of a guy that is a team player and he is doing all he can to maximize his potential and doing the things it takes to be successful. And by the end of the year he was that guy.”
In looking to build Polk County’s program for long-term success, Ollis hopes to grow interest in the sport and program among Polk County kids. He hopes to start football clubs at each elementary school, looking to spark enthusiasm and perhaps help funnel more players into Polk County Youth Football.
When fall practice arrives, he will officially welcome members from Polk County Middle School’s squad that captured the Blue Ridge Athletic Conference championship this season. That group, along with the underclassmen who saw valuable playing time this season, may be the ones to build upon the lessons of 2018.
“I had about a dozen ninth graders who played three rounds in the playoffs,” Ollis said. “Some of them played playoff football against East Wilkes. You don’t get those opportunities often. So now their interpretation of the way things go here is that Polk County gets in the playoffs and Polk County wins in the playoffs. So that’s that’s the seed that’s been planted with them. The seed has been planted with these rising ninth graders now is that you win conference titles.
“That attitude will, I think, transpire in them and for us up here when they come to the high school.”