East Wilkes, again, awaits Polk in 1AA playoff opener

A playoff win at East Wilkes a year ago led to another for Polk County, and the momentum of that push into the third round of the state 1AA playoffs carried into the offseason and helped spark the Wolverines to a 7-0 start this season.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that things come full circle this postseason and the two teams meet again, this time with the Cardinals visiting G.M. Tennant Stadium on Friday for another first-round matchup. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., with all tickets $8 and only NCHSAA passes accepted.

The pairing is the same, but the circumstances are anything but. Polk County slipped into the playoffs with a 3-8 record a year ago and journeyed to face an East Wilkes team with a 7-4 mark. The Wolverines have flipped that record this season, going 8-3, while East Wilkes enters with a 5-6 record, though the Cardinals have rebounded from a 1-4 start and may be hitting their stride just in time for the postseason.

“The way it’s worked out, it is a weird scenario from that standpoint,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “We’re going to have to be at our best versus East Wilkes. That’s our only focus. We’re not focusing on anyone but them.

“We’ve reminded the kids this week that it’s not about the score or not about how things get done, it’s about advancing.”

Polk County showed signs last week at Mountain Heritage of returning to the form that led to those first seven wins. The Wolverines were able to keep the Cougar running game largely in check, no small feat, but were undone by three long pass plays for touchdowns as Heritage quarterback Callin Randolph threw for more than 200 yards.

That will be a concern this week as East Wilkes visits. Senior quarterback Caedan Howell has passed for almost 2,000 yards (95-191-1,923-9) and 17 touchdowns, including four games of at least 200 yards, and Ollis expects to see quite a few passes in the air on Friday.

“Certainly we know we’ve got to shore things up in the secondary,” he said. “I imagine we’ll see East Wilkes put the ball in the air maybe more than they have in the past.

“We have to have all 11 guys thinking that they have to do their job, and if they don’t, they’re letting the other 10 guys down. I could every play is the game in big, bold print from last week. We could change four plays and they don’t score. Our run stop defense was incredible. I don’t know the last team that held Mountain Heritage under 100 yards rushing, and we’re awfully proud of that.”

Howell will trigger an offense that relies heavily on senior Garrett Vernon. Many say Vernon has been the best player in the Mountain Valley 2A/1A Conference this season, rushing for 868 yards and 15 touchdowns and catching 27 passes for 791 yards and seven more scores.

“They run a lot of read option. They basically run the veer out of the shotgun,” Ollis said. “They make you play assignment football.

“(Vernon) is their utility man. He returns kicks and punts, we’ve seen him catch the ball, we’ve seen him run the ball, and if he’s not the best player on defense, he’s the second best. He, (Trey Lambert) and (Howell) are the grease that makes their engine run smoothly.”

A win Friday would give Polk County nine victories in a season for the first time since 2014, but Ollis and team are looking more at the game as a chance to be 1-0 and perhaps start another playoff run.

“It’s all about advancing,” he said. “Let’s move on and practice again on Monday.”