Soon, their picture will hang on the wall of Polk County’s field house, a permanent reminder of the success achieved by the 2013 Wolverine football squad.
Head coach Bruce Ollis, though, won’t need that photograph to recall a team in many ways unlike any other he’s fielded in his 12 years at Polk County.
“This was the most gratifying season I’ve ever had,” Ollis said. “I’ve coached teams that won more games and won conference titles and won playoff games, but the way we did it this year makes it extremely gratifying.
“This was a very resilient group. We have a saying hanging in the weight room that reads ‘Persistance Prevails When All Else Fails.’ This group committed to being dedicated to that work ethic and to each other. We didn’t have any selfish players on this team.”
That team-first attitude shone through when talking to players. It echoed from all those connected with the Polk County program. And it constantly manifested itself on Friday nights as the Wolverines turned an 0-3 start to the season into a 9-4 campaign that included an undefeated run through the Western Highlands Conference, a nine-game winning streak and a second-round playoff appearance that nearly became a win over one of the most storied 2A programs in the state.
Postseason accolades have flowed since that loss – conference coach of the year for Ollis, offensive player of the year honor for quarterback Reece Schlabach, defensive player of the year honor for lineman Chase McMurray and a number of all-conference selections. More will no doubt come. They’ve all helped affirm the quality of this Wolverine team and season.
“It was a culmination of a lot of hard work by the players and coaches,” Ollis said. “The players and coaches knew, during that 0-3 debacle, that we were still a pretty good team. We just had to rise up from the ashes and we just had to win a game.
“The players responded in a positive manner. When I look back, there’s a lot of gratification. Personally, no doubt, this is one of the most special groups I’ve had.”
Non-conference play: Just looking for a win
Opening the season with Shelby and Asheville, as well as an improved R-S Central squad, always meant that the Wolverines could be a much better team than their early-season record showed. That proved to be the case.
Polk County battled Shelby evenly for much of the first three quarters before falling 38-21 in its season opener, then struggled in the red zone in a 21-0 loss at Asheville. The Wolverines dropped to 0-3 with a 42-33 loss at home to R-S Central, a game in which the Hilltoppers rushed for more than 300 yards.
Then came a road trip to face a quality Landrum team and a fourth-quarter sequence that, in the end, may have been the key to Polk County’s 2013 success.
With just over four minutes remaining in the game and Polk leading 21-15, Landrum took possession at the Wolverine 44 after a punt, riding a wave of momentum after a touchdown and a defensive stop. Led by stellar quarterback Aaron Bryant, Landrum moved to the Polk 13 in just three plays. But there, the Cardinals moved no further, eventually facing a fourth-and-12 and failing to convert. Polk County’s offense then converted a key third-and-three with a 30-yard catch-and-run from Schlabach to Jordan Smith, and victory was secured.
“I felt like the turning point of the season came at Landrum,” Ollis said. “They drove down inside the 15 and had four cracks at it, but our defense rose up and stopped them and we won our first game of the season.
“That was a huge shot of confidence, especially for our defense. That was the first time our defense rose up all year and made a play with the game on the line.”
The Wolverines returned home and thumped East Henderson 47-17 to complete their non-conference schedule, exploding for 35 first-half points. Not only was Polk beginning to find its rhythm, but the Wolverines were getting healthy, an oft-overlooked factor in that 0-3 beginning.
“We weren’t very healthy,” Ollis said. “That hurt us in those games. It’s amazing how healthy the team stayed as we started to win. We didn’t have any significant injuries the final half of the season.
“Winning soothes all ills.”
Conference play: Early wins set the tone
Polk County entered conference play hosting Madison, the preseason pick of many to win the league after reaching the state 2A semifinals in 2012. For the Wolverines, the WHC opener meant not only a chance to avenge a 28-21 loss the previous season, but do so with a statement victory over a conference rival.
Polk County opened the game with a bang, Jamal Tanner returning the opening kickoff 90 yards for a score, then wore down the Patriots, themselves battling injuries, in a 21-7 victory. It was another huge game for the Polk defense, which twice kept Madison from scoring in the first half despite driving inside the 5-yard line.
“Those two stops against Madison were huge,” Ollis said. “One inside the 6-inch line, the other inside the 5. Getting our first conference win was important.”
If that win served notice to the WHC that the Wolverines were a title threat, Polk County’s trip to Mountain Heritage blared the news at full volume from Avery to Hendersonville. The Wolverines fell behind 14-0 five minutes into the game, then faced a third-and-19 at their 35 on their next possession as the Cougar fans roared with delight.
But as he would do so often during the season, senior Anthony Carson then delivered a huge play for Polk County, outjumping two Mountain Heritage defenders for a Schlabach pass, keeping his feet, evading a tackler and dragging another into the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown that brought the Polk sideline back to life.
The Wolverines scored once more in the first period, then late in the second to take a 19-12 lead. On the Cougars’ first play facing that deficit, Polk linebacker Debois Miller emerged from a pile of blockers and defenders and a Heritage runner with the football, chugging 35 yards untouched for a touchdown. The stunning play gave the Wolverines a 26-14 lead at the half, but it also seemed to demoralize a Mountain Heritage squad that entered the game with a 4-2 record.
If not, the second half certainly did. Polk County erupted for 54 second-half points en route to an 80-36 win. The Wolverines scored 12 touchdowns in the game in five different ways (pass, run, interception return, fumble return, kick return) in posting the second-highest point total in school history.
“It was a perfect storm of things,” Ollis said. “We were down 14-0, but no one ever panicked, no one was discombobulated on the sidelines. We scored just about every way you can score.
“That did give us a lot of confidence, because Mountain Heritage had a good football team. We were not 50 points better than them on a consistent basis. But we got our swagger back that night.”
Polk rolled past Mitchell, 62-7, then thumped Avery 35-7 to set up a trip to Owen to decide the conference title. Tanner moved into the starting lineup at tailback, rushing for 92 yards and a score, Schlabach ran for 106 yards and a touchdown and Polk’s defense largely kept conference player of the year Jager Gardner in check en route to a 41-24 win.
With the conference title secure no matter the outcome of the season-ending game with Hendersonville, the Wolverines still barely celebrated in the wake of that win at Owen. Polk had bigger goals in mind, targets which they secured with a 40-27 win over the Bearcats on a chilly night at The Little Big House. Schlabach, Tanner and Smith each rushed for 100 yards as the the Wolverines completed a loss-free WHC schedule.
“We had never gone undefeated in the conference, so that was a huge deal for us,” Ollis said. “Going to Owen and winning, we actually won the conference title that night. But we still had unfinished business. One of the underlying currents of our conference season was business as usual, do things the Wolverine way. So even when we came back home to face Hendersonville, there was still a lot of pressure that night to win. It was a playoff atmosphere for us that night.”
Playoffs: So close to postseason history
Polk County had hopes of being seeded at least fourth in the 2A West Regional, setting the stage for two home playoff games, but fell to a fifth seed when East Rutherford upset Chase in their season finale. That also brought Madison back for a first-round game, one in which Polk County again had three 100-yard rushers en route to a 45-13 win on a rain-soaked evening. The Wolverines then traveled to Reidsville in the second round, facing a Rams squad that, had Chase won that game with East Rutherford, would likely have been the top seed in the 2AA East bracket.
Instead, Reidsville dropped to a fourth seed in the 2A West and had to contend with a Polk squad that overcame a horrific second quarter, with two fumbles, a blocked punt and an injury to Schlabach, to rally in the fourth period. With a gritty defensive performance and Tanner at quarterback, the Wolverines reached the 1-yard line in the game’s final minute with a chance to possibly tie the game. Reidsville held on for a 27-19 win, but many who saw the game, neutral observers included, felt the Wolverines were the better team on the field that night.
“It’s a very empty feeling,” Ollis said. “When you know those seniors are finishing their careers, it puts a lump in your throat. We had a chance to be back home in the third round (thanks to Lincolnton’s upset of Carver) for the first time in school history, so that’s a tough thing to take as well.
“We have a saying, ‘Forget It and Drive On.’ We want to learn from it, but we can’t dwell on it to the point that it consumes us, and that’s what we’re already doing.”
While Ollis isn’t one for statistics, there will be much to look back on in terms of accomplishments for the 2013 squad. Polk scored 465 points, second most in a season in school history, and rushed for 3,066 yards while passing for 1,757. The back-to-back games with three 100-yard rushers are believed to be a first for the program, certainly during Ollis’ tenure. A veteran offensive line, a stable full of skill players and Schlabach calmly running it all led to an offense that scored at least 20 points in all but two games.
“I’m an old school guy, and I always want to rush the ball,” Ollis said. “We’re going to throw it as well, but running the ball consistently can demoralize an opponent, and we were able to do that.
“Rushing for 3,000 yards in a season doesn’t happen many times. We were able to mix the run and the pass, and that made us difficult to defend. Our running game was so good that it made our play-action game that much tougher to deal with. If we needed to play keepaway from a team to keep their offense off the field, because our running game was so good, we could do that.”
One other key factor in Polk’s success this season – a veteran, stable coaching staff that worked just as hard off the field as did the players. It was common for Polk’s staff to work 10-hour days, or more, on Sundays preparing for an upcoming opponent.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys I work with,” Ollis said. “We have a tremendous staff that tolerates me. Boy, we work well together, and we enjoy each other’s company. But when it’s time to get serious, we’re able to draw the line and get to work.
“There were times when I would get here on Sunday morning at 9:30 and (defensive coordinator Jamie Thompson) was already here, breaking down film. We were not leaving here in Sundays until we had our game plan set, especially defensively.”
It will be another challenging offseason for the Wolverine staff, as graduation will take away much of the team’s starting offensive and defensive lines, a key defensive player in Debois Miller and skill players such as Schlabach, Carson, Matt Darden, Donte Poston and Tyrone Miller. But there is a talented nucleus of players returning, and without doubt the Wolverines will once again be in the mix for a conference championship. Five titles since 2006 almost makes that a given.
“Year in and year out, we’re in hunt for a conference title, and that’s one thing that’s a great source of pride for our fans, players and our coaching staff,” Ollis said.
“We’ve already started working on 2014. The coaches met and we established a depth chart, and we got to work on next season.”