NEWLAND – Rain, Avery and a good bit of adversity – Polk County found a way to push past all of it Friday.
Nothing about getting there was easy.
The Wolverines bounced back from a loss at Owen with one of their best halves of football this season, then kept Avery at bay to take a 35-28 victory in a Western Highlands Conference clash in MacDonald Stadium.
Polk County reached eight regular-season wins for the first time since 2014, improving to 8-1 overall, 2-1 in WHC play and keeping Polk’s conference title hopes alive. The Wolverines host Mitchell on Friday in a battle of 8-1 teams that will decide the conference’s top 1A seed and could give the Wolverines a title shot at Mountain Heritage the following week.
To get to that, Polk had to put together perhaps the best win that head coach Bruce Ollis never saw. The Wolverines drew 11 penalties to Avery’s one, and two of those 11 were unsportsmanlike calls against Ollis. The latter, early in the fourth period, meant the veteran head coach had to leave the field.
Polk held a 28-21 lead at that point and had seemingly scored when Angus Weaver turned a Bryce Jergenson pass into a 26-yard touchdown. A penalty negated that score, and that flag plus the ensuing penalty on Ollis pushed Polk back to the Avery 41, where the Wolverines faced third-and-21.
Polk’s coaches dialed up the same play that delivered the game-winning touchdown against Hendersonville earlier this seaason – and it worked once more. Jergenson fired a perfect pass deep down the middle of the field to Steven Chupp, who broke a tackle and pushed his way to the 4-yard line. Jergenson scored a play later from the 3, and Matias Akers added the extra point to put Polk up 35-21 with 8:37 remaining.
“I was so proud of the way we ended the ball game,” Ollis said. “When the head coach has to leave the sidelines, that’s not a good thing. I’m embarrassed by it. We tell our players not to allow that to happen. I was certainly pleased with the way (Polk’s assistant coaches) finished the ballgame.”
A fumble stopped Avery’s next drive, but the Vikings got the ball back with just under four minutes left and scored with 57 seconds remaining on Troy Hoilman’s 2-yard run. Avery’s onside kick attempt, though, bounced out-of-bounds, and Polk picked up a first down, ran out the clock and enjoyed the postgame fireworks that Avery planned to celebrate Homecoming.
The Wolverines were largely able to prevent Avery’s explosive offense from producing too many fireworks during the game. The Vikings were unable to run – Polk allowed just 22 yards rushing – and thus stuck to their short passing game. Hoilman attempted 52 passes, completing 27 and throwing for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew they could spin the ball,” said Polk County defensive coordinator Jamie Thompson. “We played a straight dime defense, dropping eight a lot of times. We did a good job holding up against the run with that.
“We let them run open too much some, but I thought we got pressure for the most part. We dropped a lot of interceptions. We’d make a play and drop the interception. But I was proud of our effort and how we did.”
Avery scored on the opening drive of the game to take a 6-0 lead, but Polk immediately responded, driving 80 yards in nine plays. Angus Weaver had runs of 14, 10 and 40 yards midway through the drive, then capped it with a 1-yard plunge. Akers’ extra point gave Polk a 7-6 lead with 3:47 left in the first.
A Chupp 34-yard punt return set up Polk’s next score, an 18-yard Jergenson run, and the Wolverines led 14-6 with 2:29 left in the first. Polk stopped Avery again on its next possession, but a fumbled punt gave the Vikings possession at the Polk 27. Avery reached the end zone in four plays, the final one a 5-yard pass from Hoilman to Jesse Jones, and added the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 14-14.
Back came the Wolverines, again driving 80 yards, this time in six plays. Jergenson opened the drive with a 27-yard pass to Lukas Tipton before Gage McSwain raced 37 yards around left end to move Polk to the 5. McSwain scored a play later from the 1 to put the Wolverines back on top, 28-14, with 8:52 left in the half.
Following another Avery punt, the Wolverines again reached the end zone, this time with Weaver plowing in from the 7. Akers made it 28-14 with 5:14 left in the half, and the Wolverine defense held that lead until the break to cap a half in which the Wolverines were as focused as perhaps in any half this season.
“It was the quietest bus ride I’ve ever been on,” Ollis said. “We had a talk. . . I said boys, this is a playoff game. Winning for the next three weeks is going to determine where we are in the playoffs. We still have an opportunity to be Western Highlands Conference champions. So let’s approach it like that. I don’t think there needs to be much talking. Let’s get our minds and hearts ready to play a great football game. And we did.”
Weaver unofficially finished with a season-high 155 yards on 14 carries, with McSwain adding 54 yards on seven carries. Jergenson was 6-of-8 passing for 137 yards, with McSwain catching two passes for 50 yards and Chupp catching two for 49 yards.
“It’s a great win over a good football team and that’s what we came here to do,” Ollis said.