Conference play has arrived as Polk treks to Madison for WHC opener

Polk County football seasons of late have featured a six-game buildup to conference play, a time for the Wolverines to find their footing and fine-tune things before tackling the rigors of their Western Highlands Conference schedule.

Of course, football seasons of late have also been 11-game slates starting in August, too.

Three games into the delayed 2020 campaign, conference play has arrived for Polk County. The Wolverines travel Friday to Madison for a 7 p.m. kickoff that will mark the start of five weeks that will determine the WHC regular-season champion. Tickets for the game are on sale at GoFan.co and the game will also be streamed live via YouTube.

It is Polk County’s final season in the Western Highlands, realignment moving the Wolverines elsewhere next season, and it will be a conference race unlike any other save for the goal at the end.

“It’s certainly different,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “We play to be conference champions. I guess our first goal is to go undefeated, but next is to finish as conference champions.

“It’s been since 2013 since we hung a conference banner. We feel like this group is very capable of doing that. But this is a very strong, balanced conference. It’s going to take great effort every week to win this conference.”

Indeed, top to bottom, the WHC is as strong as it ever has been, which makes opening conference play on a successful note a priority for Polk County (1-1).

A Madison team (0-2) rebuilding under first-year head coach James Extine will look to establish its conference presence and bounce back from a pair of losses to Smoky Mountain (48-7) and North Buncombe (54-27). The Patriots are led by running back Zander Fender, who had 196 yards on 16 carries against North Buncombe, and quarterback Caden Hilemon, who threw for 169 yards and rushed for 90 in that loss.

“(Hilemon) is a chicken-salad player,” Ollis said. “If a play breaks down he can keep it alive until he finds an open receiver or breaks free and runs. The key for us is going to be to keep him in the pocket and make him throw from there.

“They’re big at linebacker and they’re big at defensive end. They really play well between the tackles, which is where most of running game takes place. Doing a good job up front is paramount for us to do well. This is a physical football conference, and games are going to be won at the line of scrimmage.”

Polk County began to establish its running game in last week’s 49-14 win over East Rutherford, with Angus Weaver gaining 88 yards on 11 carries and scoring three touchdowns. That helped open things up for quarterback Casey Beiler, who threw for 217 yards and three scores.

Also helping Beiler was a subtle uniform change. The sophomore began wearing a wristband with play information, allowing him to more quickly and confidently call plays when receiving information from the Polk sideline.

“We averaged 20 to 25 seconds in and out of the huddle, which is pretty good,” Ollis said. “Casey played with a lot of confidence. Going to that wristband allows him to worry less about all the memorization and focus on what he has to do. He really played well. As a team, we cut our physical and mental mistakes in half.”

Ollis also noted the contribution of senior Gage McSwain on both sides of the ball.

“Gage McSwain really played well defensively,” he said. “He had a big sack, he caused a fumble and he had a fumble recovery. With his speed, he can really help us coming off the edge.”

The Wolverines will need contributions from all over the next five weeks if their final pass through the Western Highlands is to end with a conference title.

“I think our players are really hungry,” Ollis said. “We’ve talked a lot this week about being a viable force in the conference and having the opportunity to play for a conference title.

“That starts at Madison.”

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