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Polk County tops Bearcats to complete undefeated conference run

Smiles, hugs and pats on the back were as common Friday night in the aftermath of Polk County’s 40-27 win over Hendersonville as gloves, thick jackets and headwear on a chilly November evening.

Just as you would expect, given the historic run the Wolverines had just completed.

Polk County put a satisfying finish on its first undefeated Western Highlands Conference record, claiming sole possession of the WHC championship with its eighth consecutive win while also snapping a two-year Hendersonville victory streak in the series between the two schools. It marks the fifth Western Highalnds title for the Wolverines since 2006, but none of those came without a conference loss.

This one did, despite an 0-3 start in non-conference play. And that made all of those postgame smiles a bit broader, those hugs a bit stronger in the on-field celebration.

“Nine weeks ago, I stood in front of this football team after the loss to R-S Central when we were 0-3,” said Polk head coach Bruce Ollis. “It was about 1:45 in the afternoon, before practice, and I told them, ‘Men, we’re going to win the next eight games and win the conference outright.’ They believed us, they believed in each other, they believed in themselves and made it happen.”

Polk County will now await Saturday’s announcement of the 2A playoff pairings by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association to learn its first-round opponent. The Wolverines will be seeded high enough in the 2A West bracket to earn a first-round home game and potentially high enough to play the second round at home as well. PolkSports.com will post the bracket as soon as it’s available.

Jordan Smith and Jamal Tanner each scored two touchdowns and Reese Schlabach added another, all three rushing for more than 100 yards, as the Wolverines overcome a pesky Bearcats squad whose record (5-6, 3-3) perhaps doesn’t reflect the quality of its roster. Operating out of the no-huddle spread attack now in vogue in the college game, alternating quarterbacks Cole Cleary and Michael Schmidt sometimes on a play-by-play basis, Hendersonville found some offensive success with underneath routes, getting receivers in space on short routes across the middle.

Cleary and Schmidt were a combined 13-for-22 for 172 yards and were the bulk of the offense as Polk County’s run defense never cracked, with the Bearcats gaining just 62 yards on 27 carries.

“One thing we’ve got to work on is our pass rush and our pass defense,” Ollis said. “Hendersonville exposed us a little bit there.

“We beat a good football team. We’ve beaten two good football teams in consecutive weeks (including last week’s 41-24 win over Owen).”

For the second straight week, Polk County turned the ball over on its second offensive play via interception. And for the second straight week, the opponent turned that miscue into an early lead, Hendersonville scoring on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Cleary to Bradley Schmidt for a 7-0 edge midway through the first quarter. The Wolverines wasted no time in answering, driving 66 yards in six plays, capped by Tanner’s 13-yard run on a toss sweep. Polk County faked the extra point attempt and Schlabach hit Jerry Cox for the 2-point conversion, giving Polk an 8-7 lead.

The Wolverines would go 5-for-5 on 2-point conversion attempts in the game, a key stat in that the five extra points earned on those conversions turned what would have been a one-touchdown margin in the fourth quarter into a two-touchdown difference.

Another Polk turnover late in the first period led to another Hendersonville touchdown, with Terrold Gary scoring on a 12-yard shovel pass early in the second period for a 14-8 Bearcats lead. But as they’ve done so often this season, the Wolverines responded immediately, needing just four plays to cover 74 yards. Schlabach ripped off a 21-yard run and Tanner had runs of 27 and 24 yards, both on toss sweeps, the latter good for a touchdown and a 16-14 lead with 8:15 remaining.

The Bearcats went three-and-out on their next possession, and Polk County took over at its 32 and marched for another score. Schlabach, Tanner and Smith took turns rushing on a nine-play march that ended with Schlabach scoring from the four with 2:02 left. That gave Polk County a 24-14 lead, which grew to 26-14 moments later when a bad snap on a Hendersonville possession led to a Polk safety.

The Wolverines received the opening kickoff in the second half and made the most of it. Tanner galloped around right end for 48 yards to move Polk into the red zone, then made one of his two highlight plays on the drive. Facing 4th-and-11, Polk ran a bootleg screen that Hendersonville defended well, but Tanner took the pass, made a defender miss, then accelerated and weaved through the Bearcat defense for an 18-yard touchdown. The 2-point conversion made it 32-14.

Tanner’s other highlight? Three plays earlier on a touchdown run negated by a penalty, but nonetheless memorable. Taking a toss sweep around the left end, the sophomore sprinted down the sideline inside the 5, then effortlessly hurdled a Hendersonville defender to land in the end zone. The flag negated the call, but sent a buzz through the Wolverine sideline.

Plays like that were why Ollis and staff decided to move Tanner to the starting tailback slot prior to the Owen game.

“That was a difficult decision for me to make, because Donte (Poston) had played well for us,” Ollis said. “I sat down and counted the number of dynamic plays that Jamal had compared to the number of touches he had, and I felt like we had to get the ball in his hands more.”

Hendersonville followed Tanner’s score with perhaps its best drive of the night, with two long pass plays from Michael Schmidt to Cleary leading a possession that ended in a Gary 1-yard score. That cut the Polk lead to 32-21, but only for a few seconds.

Hendersonville opted for short, high kickoffs much of the night to keep the ball away from deep returners Tanner and Matt Darden. Smith made that strategy backfire as he took the ensuing kickoff and ripped a 78-yard return past the Hendersonville bench for a touchdown. Tanner added the 2-point conversion for a 40-21 lead with 5:49 left in the third period.

The Bearcats responded with a touchdown drive that ended with a Cleary-to-Gary 1-yard pass on the first play of the fourth quarter, but that would the the Bearcats’ final tally. Though they didn’t score, Polk County controlled the ball for more than 10 minutes in the period, using a ground game that finished with 411 yards on 47 carries. Tanner had 189 yards on 15 carries, Schlabach had 127 yards on 20 carries and Smith finished with 103 yards on 11 carries.

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