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Hungry Owen ready to punctuate season with Western Highlands title

Owen head football coach Kenny Ford has been around football long enough to know that every team has its strengths, its weakness and certainly its quirks.

His current crop of Warhorses have proved no different.

“When the lights come on Friday nights, they’re ready to play,” said Ford, in his 27th year at Owen. “I get mad at them during the week, and the kids will say, ‘Coach, we got this, Don’t worry.’ As the week goes along, the sense of urgency gets better.

“These kids are used to being successful, and they expect to be, for good things to happen.”

Owen’s success this season has been one of the top stories in Western North Carolina high school football, and the Warhorses are hoping to add yet another good thing to that tale on Friday night when they host Polk County in a game that will determine the Western Highlands Conference champion. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

Owen enters at 8-1, its only loss a 52-13 setback to Reynolds in early September, and ranked 10th in the latest state Associated Press 2A poll. The Warhorses have won six straight since that loss to Reynolds and arrive at Friday’s showdown with a chance to win the school’s first conference title since 2006. That’s also the last time Owen defeated Polk County, a string of seven straight Wolverine wins.

“We hoped we’d be sitting in this position,” Ford said. “It seems like it has always come down to Hendersonville and Polk every year for a long time. Hendersonville’s had it the past couple of years. It’s been a while since our program has been in the position to win and take care of things.”

Owen has moved to within a step of a conference title thanks in no small part to its offense. The Warhorses average almost 500 yards of total offense per game, including 383 yards per game rushing, and haven’t scored less than 31 points since that loss to Reynolds.

The focal point, obviously, is junior running back Jager Gardner, the 6-3 standout who is averaging 11 yards every time he carries the football. His 205 carries have been good for 2,237 yards and 29 touchdowns, and he set a WNC single-game record earlier this year with 459 yards against Avery.

But Gardner’s not the entire offense. Quarterback Sam Drummond has thrown for 902 yards and nine touchdowns, completing 56.3 percent of his passes, and junior Zee Johnston has added 630 yards rushing, another 147 receiving and 10 total scores.

“Sam’s very good, very smart. We always say that we should change his number to 3.1,” Ford said. “He may not be as great an athlete as Reece (Schlabach) is for Polk, but he just gets in there and makes some plays and gets the ball where it needs to go.

“I think Zee Johnston is our Swiss Army knife. He does a little bit of everything for us on both sides of the football. He’s a busy guy. I’d like to have more of him.”

Owen will look to stop Polk County’s offense, which has put up impressive numbers in its six-game winning streak, with a defense led by Cade Fox (84 tackles) and Tucker Lowery (67). Gardner and Johnston will also see time as most of Owen’s starters will play both ways.

“(Polk) doesn’t do anything to hurt themselves. They’re always a well-coached football team and very sound,” Ford said.

“They have a lot of things they like to do, but if you stop those they can do a lot of other things. We’ve got to try to keep our kids in position to make plays. That’s one thing we’re trying to work on this week, staying in position to make plays.”

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