Unselfish. Team first. Motivated.
Those are traits that Polk County head football coach Bruce Ollis sees running through this year’s Wolverine roster. And that’s one reason he’s optimistic that, beginning with Friday’s season opener against Cherokee, the Wolverines can build on last season’s run to the third round of the state 1AA playoffs.
“The biggest thing is the attitude of our players. They’re so positive and upbeat,” Ollis said. “They’re fun to be around. It’s a cohesive group that seems to revel in other people’s achievements.
“A lot of those guys are unselfish guys who just want to be on a winning team. You don’t win without grunt work, and we’ve got a lot of players who don’t mind doing that.”
The disappointment of a 3-8 regular season in 2018 quickly evaporated during Polk’s playoff success, road wins against West Wilkes and North Rowan and a 21-7 loss at Starmount that could easily have tipped in the Wolverines’ favor. It matched the deepest postseason finish for any Polk County squad in school history.
That run helped fuel interest in Polk’s offseason program; some 55 players, high school and middle school, attended 15 or more summer workouts. That group includes a good number of rising ninth graders who won Polk County Middle’s first conference championship a season ago.
“We’ve got a group coming from the middle school that’s used to winning,” Ollis said. “As a result, our JV numbers are up. JV participation has been incredible. Our JV football program is so much further along at the same point from a year ago. We’re excited about their prospects also.”
Some of Polk’s preseason enthusiasm took a hit when senior Cameron Blackwell suffered an injury that will sideline him until at least midseason. Fortunately, the Wolverines still have ample depth at fullback, the focal point of Polk’s flexbone offense.
“We’ve got three or four talented fullbacks, and in this offense, the fullback is the man,” Ollis said. “The slotback’s going to get the ball some, and with option football, the quarterback’s a runner, too.
“Lukas Tipton comes back as one of the top rushers in Western North Carolina. Cameron had a great season too and we’re going to get him back. Angus Weaver is going to get some carries. The thing about Angus is that he’s just a football player. Certainly starting and playing a lot as a ninth grader is rare, but he’s a very instinctive player.”
Jordan Bishop, whom Ollis said is the fastest player on the roster, will start at one of the slotback positions, with Gage McSwain in the mix at the other slot and Nate Henderson and Shane Parris also seeing time at those positions. Parris could handle some fullback carries early in the season.
Sophomore Bryce Jergenson has emerged as the replacement for graduated quarterback Avery Edwards, with Tyler Staley also expected to see time there and possibly at receiver. Both have shown improvement throughout the preseason in terms of ball security and both impressed Ollis in Polk’s scrimmage effort against Travelers Rest.
“This past Friday, zero mental mistakes at quarterback, and both of them got time at quarterback,” he said. “I told them, men, if we can play like that, we’ll have a chance to win every game we play.”
When either go to pass, they’ll likely be looking for wideout Steven Chupp or tight end Chase McSwain, with Bryson Jackson also on the field sometimes to give the Wolverines two tight ends. McSwain will also contribute greatly to a line that is the heart of this year’s team.
“Probably the strength of our team on both sides will be those guys,” Ollis said. “Logan Conner and Daniel Ruff are both road graders up front. In Logan and Daniel, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody in Western North Carolina. They’re legitmate football players. Big, strong, athletic, and both of them have a little bit of nasty in them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Carlos Sedano, Jared Searcy and Trey Thompson will likely round out the starting offensive line. All will also play key roles on the defensive side as well, with Noah Hudgins also slotting into the group up front. Chase McSwain, Weaver and Tipton will see time at linebacker.
The secondary will include Chupp, Parris, Staley, Bishop and Evan Miller, among others.
“Defensively there’s a lot of positive energy flowing because they don’t expect anybody to score,” Ollis said. “(Defensive coordinator Jamie Thompson)’s favorite saying is that if they don’t score, we can’t lose. That’s kind of the attitude they’ve taken.”
Matias Akers will handle placekicking duties for Polk and showed his potential value during the Travelers Rest scrimmage with a kickoff into the end zone. He or Staley will likely serve as the team’s punter.
It all adds up to a conditioned, confident team that will step onto W.J. Miller Field for the season opener.
“The players realize that we were a couple of plays away from being in the regional final a year ago, even after winning three games in the regular season,” Ollis said. “That’s given the players a lot of confidence.
“We know the road to a conference title still goes through Burnsville (home of Mountain Heritage). Mitchell’s been their nemesis. We’ve got to move into that top tier, and I think we’ve got a team capable of doing that.
“No doubt given the success we had last season and the success we’ve had in our scrimmages, our kids have a lot of confidence right now.”