It marks the path to the postseason, six weeks that will determine whether Polk County enters the 2A playoff fray or gets an early start on its offseason program.

The Western Highlands Conference portion of the Wolverines’ 2013 schedule has arrived. And arrived, it has, with an early challenge.

Madison, 2A Western Regional finalists a year ago and the pick of many as this year’s best of the WHC, rolls into The Little Big House on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. matchup. The game marks the start of not only conference play, but the halfway point of Polk County’s regular season, which means two things – game night temperatures will soon be cooler, and the action on the field will be warming up each week as the playoffs grow nearer.

“We divide our season into four parts,” said Polk head coach Bruce Ollis. “One, preseason. Two, nonconference games. Three, conference games. Four, playoffs. Hard to believe we are already this far along in our season.

“Our first objective each year is to win the conference. It is a big deal and certainly these games have a different feel and urgency.”

Conference play arrives at perhaps the ideal time for Polk. After an 0-3 start, the Wolverines have rebounded with back-to-back wins, the most recent a 47-17 rout of East Henderson. Polk raced to a 35-3 halftime lead in that win, playing its best half of the season in all phases and adding to the sense of momentum building around the Polk locker room.

“The past two weeks we have grown as a team,” Ollis said. “Although there was certainly a sense of frustration starting out 0-3 they never lost their focus and work ethic. Losing a few surely does make you appreciate winning and our players and coaches are taking nothing for granted.”

One thing Polk can count on is this – Madison will offer an early gauge of the Wolverines’ chances for a WHC title run. The Patriots enter at 3-1, their only loss to Erwin, and are coming off a bye week. Madison features one of the top running backs in the region, senior Tyler Hoffman, who is averaging almost seven yards per carry and has 11 touchdowns in those first four games. Rogers had topped 200 rushing yards in two games and has yet to have fewer than 150 yards in any game.

Hoffman’s effectiveness has helped Madison cope with the loss of senior quarterback Tyler Rogers, who suffered a broken leg Aug. 30 in the Patriots’ 26-14 win over North Buncombe and isn’t expected back until next month, though this week marks the start of the four-to-six week timetable that Madison coaches originally set for his return. Austin Payne has stepped in for Rogers and is 11-of-24 for 188 yards on the season. When Madison does throw, John Tickhonov (seven catches, 143 yards) is the top target, but the Patriots aren’t going to fill the Polk County air with footballs. Madison will look to move the ball on the ground and sustain drives, both areas in which Polk’s defense has improved its ability to prevent after early-season struggles.

“No doubt they are a run-first, pass-second type of offense,” Ollis said. “Very physical upfront and the running game suits their style of play. Needless to say, we must nullify their running attack if we are to be successful. We have improved in that area the past two games.”

Madison’s defense offers a mix of strength and quickness that concerns Ollis. Linebackers Derrick English (14 tackles per game) and Dylan Hilemon (11 tackles/game) head that unit. Both weigh in around 240 pounds. Both can disrupt an opposing offense.

“Big, strong and very physical,” Ollis said of Madison’s linebacker corps. “In most cases they are bigger than many of the linemen that are blocking them. They run well and are good tacklers. They stunt often. We must be able to pick up their blitzing.”

And then there’s Madison’s not-so-secret weapon, Cole Cuthbertson. The 5-10, 180-pound senior is a jack-of-all-trades for the Patriots, one reason he made the NCPreps.com preseason all-state team. In 2012, Cuthbertson caught 40 passes for 956 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had 50 tackles and four interceptions as a defensive back. Most notably, he set a state record with 10 kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns. A threat any time he’s on the field, Cuthbertson will especially challenge Polk’s special teams.

“Our kickoff coverage has to get better,” Ollis said. “We are giving away way too many short fields after scoring. Cuthbertson was one of the top return/special teams players in the state last season and can change the course of a game with a big return.”

Of course, Polk has its own game changers. Quarterback Reece Schlabach ran for four touchdowns last week and earned Ollis’ postgame praise for his effectiveness when Polk used its option running game. Wide receiver Anthony Carson continues to be among the top receivers in Western North Carolina, while Jordan Smith and Donte Poston teamed with Schlabach last week for a rushing attack that averaged almost 10 yards per carry.

There have been a lot of good signs for Polk the past two weeks. The Wolverines will need all of those to continue on Friday night.

“Madison had an incredible season last year,” Ollis said. “We lost to them at their place 28-21. To a man, I am sure all of our coaches and returning players say that one still stings somewhat. Having another chance to play them early will give us a good indicator as to where we stand in the conference race.

“We are excited and looking forward to the challenge.”

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