The usual flow of high school football in Western North Carolina is that as the temperature at kickoff each week drops, the importance of the game that follows rises.
It will likely dip into the 40s on Friday evening in G.M. Tennant Stadium. Appropriately.
Mitchell and Polk County are set to square off in a showdown of 8-1 teams that has key playoff and Western Highlands Conference implications. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
The 7:30 p.m. kickoff is also the final regular-season home game for the Wolverines, as if the game needed more at stake.
“It’s Senior Night, and that’s a big deal,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “Certainly we don’t want to send our seniors off with a loss in their final regular-season home game.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to be conference champions with two games remaining and be able to fulfill our goal to hang a conference banner.”
Polk County and Mitchell enter Friday’s game each 2-1 in the WHC, a game behind Mountain Heritage. A Polk County win would likely set up a winner-take-all game next week at Mountain Heritage for the conference crown, while Mitchell would keep alive its shot at a share of the league title. The winner of Friday’s game is also assured of being the conference’s top 1A seed for the upcoming state playoffs, which could mean a first-round bye and a second-round home game.
There’s just a bit at stake.
“The first order of business for us when we talk about having a great season is winning the conference,” Ollis said. “This is an exciting time for Polk County football, and I think our players feel that. This is the reason you play the game, for a chance to win the conference.”
Earning that chance will certainly encounter a challenge against a Mitchell squad that many think could make a run at a state title.
The Mountaineers are led by standout senior quarterback Noah Pitman, who’s rushed for 1,103 yards while throwing for 902. The son of head coach Travise Pitman, he’s the heart of an offense that has averaged more than 400 total yards per game this season.
“I haven’t seen many coach’s sons who play the game that aren’t exceptional players,” Ollis said. “Defensively, we’re not going to stop a player that talented. We have to prevent him from making plays that decide the outcome of the game. We have to contain him. The key thing is to keep him from making game-changing plays.”
Junior Tanner Duncan has rushes for 561 yards, with senior Tyler McKinney the other key threat for Mitchell. McKinney leads the team in receiving with 29 catches for 557 yards and nine scores and is also a dangerous kick returner, averaging 32 yards per kickoff return and 19 yards per punt return.
“Those three guys are the grease that make them go offensively,” Ollis said. “We’re very similar football teams in that we’re both solid upfront and we have great senior leadership. The game is going to come down to who executes better.”
Polk County will welcome the return of senior Jordan Bishop, back from an injury. Logan Conner left last week’s game at Avery with an injury but will be ready to play Friday, Ollis said.
Also back on the sideline will be Ollis, who was disqualified from last week’s win at Avery with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Wolverines have a rule that anyone drawing an unsportsmanlike flag must push a blocking sled by themselves the following week at practice; Ollis took his turn on Monday, driving the sled across the Wolverines’ practice and back, more than 100 total yards, as players and coaches cheered.
“I’ve got to do a better job of keeping my composure,” Ollis said. “I’ve got to deal with adversity better.”
With so much at stake Friday night, Ollis is hoping to see a large crowd at Tennant Stadium for what promises to be a WHC classic.
“I’d like to see all the Wolverine fans will the stadium,” he said. “The rain’s going to clear out and it’s going to be football weather.
“Our players thrive on having the crowd behind us, the band playing, the cheerleaders cheering, all of that gives us a homefield advantage,” he said. “We really want folks to come out en masse and pack the stadium.”