Polk County leaves the Thermal Belt Friday night for the first time since an early-season trip to Asheville. Awaiting them at their destination is an opportunity to firmly establish their Western Highlands Conference championship hopes.
The Wolverines travel to Mountain Heritage for a 7:30 p.m. matchup (WJFJ-AM, 1160) of two teams whose seasons have roughly paralleled one another. Both teams stumbled early, but have rebounded with lengthy winning streaks that include winning their WHC openers last week.
In Mountain Heritage’s case, that opening league win came at Hendersonville, marking the first time the Bearcats suffered a home conference loss since the end of the 2010 season. After back-to-back four-win seasons, the Cougars (4-2, 1-0) have already matched that total with four straight victories after two early-season losses, and the Hendersonville win served notice to the rest of the conference that Heritage intends to be part of the conference title chase.
“Great win for their program against a quality opponent,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “Needless to say, getting out of the gate with a victory for each of us makes this a game to see who can stay on top of the WHC race.”
Polk also enters on a victory roll, winners of three straight after an 0-3 start. Defensive play has been key for Polk in that winning streak, the Wolverines holding three straight opponents under 20 points, including last week’s 21-7 win over Madison. Polk’s defense, though, will be tested Friday by a Mountain Heritage offense averaging 36.7 points per game, with four games of 40 points or more, and coming off a 500-yard-plus effort at Hendersonville.
The Heritage offense is led by quarterback Trevor Robinson, son of head coach Joey Robinson and a returning all-conference play. Robinson has rushed for 742 yards and thrown for 862 this season, accounting for 23 total touchdowns, and presents Polk with another dual-threat quarterback to defend in a season in which they’ve faced many.
“Robinson is a very talented player,” Ollis said. “As a coach’s son, he has been around the game most of his life and has a very high football IQ. He is a very good decision maker and a threat with his feet and arm.
“A quarterback that can run and throw always poses problems. We have seen some very good quarterbacks up to now and that will certainly help in our preparation. A player that talented is going to make some plays, you just can’t allow him to dictate the game. He has a pretty good supporting cast.”
Backfield mate Dalton Robinson has rushed for 585 yards and five touchdowns on 97 carries, and Jake McClellan leads the team in receiving with 22 catches for 353 yards and three scores.
“Their offense is loaded with misdirection which can be hard to prepare for,” Ollis said. “We are going to have to play assignment football and not get caught up spectating.
“Our defense has been rising to the occasion when the game is on the line. Making plays in the scoring area has been huge for us. We are keeping teams out of the end zone which in turn gives our offense a boost. Good play by both sides of the ball enables the offense and defense to feed off of each other.”
Of course, the best way to slow down an offense is to not let them have the ball, and Polk County has shown an ability to do just that. While the Wolverines have shown big-play capability with quarterback Reece Schlabach, wide receiver Anthony Carson and do-everything player Jamal Tanner, Polk has also been able to mount long, time-killing drives, using Donte Poston, Matt Darden and Jordan Smith to move the ball on the ground. Take the 16-play, 80-yard, nine-minute drive in the second half of last week’s win as a prime example.
How Polk’s offense fares may be the key against a Mountain Heritage defense giving up 33.7 points per game.
“We have moved the ball on everyone and with the exception of the Asheville game been able to put several touchdowns on the board,” Ollis said. “One key for us will be to control the ball and keep their very explosive offense on the sideline.”
A trip to Mountain Heritage often poses a challenge for opponents, the stadium having a reputation as a tough place to play. And with a trip to Landrum one of Polk’s two road games to date, the Wolverines haven’t exactly been road weary thus far this season.
But Ollis isn’t worried about making any adjustments for the trip.
“We travel well,” he said. “I don’t think it will pose any problems for us.”