Coming off the best two scoring weeks in head coach Bruce Ollis’ tenure at Polk County, two weeks away from a game that could decide the Western Highlands Conference championship, Friday’s trip to Avery County would seem the ideal trap game for the Wolverines, a chance for an unexpected slip in the late-season title drive.
But this year’s Wolverines have shown a tendency to focus on the task at hand, giving Ollis plenty of reason to expect nothing but the team’s best as they hit the road for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff in Newland.
“Part of our preparation this week will be to stay hungry, stay humble,” Ollis said earlier this week. “I don’t think focus will be a problem for this group although we will need to work to stay grounded as we move on. If you get right down to it, nothing has been accomplished yet.”
And thus a hungry group of Wolverines will head up into the mountains looking to extend the team’s ongoing winning streak to six as well as remain undefeated in conference play. Given recent trends, everything would seem to favor Polk County doing so.
Avery County, which hasn’t defeated Polk County since 2005, enters the game with the unwelcome distinction of having allowed opponents to set Western North Carolina records for single-game rushing (Owen’s Jager Gardner, 459 yards) and single-game receiving (Hendersonville’s Raymond Reid, 298) in the past three games. Its defense has often been hit-or-miss this season, with three opponents scoring 36 points or more and the other four held to 13 points or fewer. Avery did hold a 27-15 halftime lead over Owen before Gardner exploded to rally the Warhorses.
All of which would seem to make Avery a perfect foe for a Polk County offense that has scored 142 points in its last two games while broadening its stable of individual weapons. Ollis, though, isn’t firing up the calculator or breaking open the record book.
“Our players and coaches don’t get too concerned about statistics,” Ollis said. “We preach that the only stat that is important is the one on the scoreboard. Offensively we are doing a lot of things well. That will need to continue along with improvement along the way.”
The Vikings will look to keep the ball away from Polk’s offense with an option rushing attack built around running backs Daniel Childress (121-730) and Austin Phillips (47-278) and quarterback Tre’ Jackson (82-329). The Vikings have averaged more than five yards per rushing attempt this season and have an almost 4-to-1 run/pass ratio.
“They are certainly a run-first team,” Ollis said. “We are going to see option football for the first time this week so we are going to have to responsibility football on defense. You must account for the quarterback, fullback and tailback on each play they run the veer or midline.
“Our option game has posed problems for our opponents the past several weeks. We see it in practice all of the time so I think this will help defending it.”
Polk will also get a firsthand look at one of the area’s top kickers in Jackson. This season the junior has hit four field goals, including a 45-yarder, and has 23 touchbacks on kickoffs. As a punter, Jackson is averaging almost 44 yards per kick this season, with a long of 69 yards.
“Hopefully they are punting a lot,” Ollis said. “Our punt return has definitely improved since the start of the season and our players are taking great pride in making it like an offensive play, an opportunity to score. Avery probably does have the best kicking game in the WHC and this does pose problems from a field position standpoint. His kicks normally go into the end zone which gives you an 80-yard field to negotiate. I trust they will not be kicking off too many times.”
The first three-game stretch of this season didn’t go as Polk had hoped, with the Wolverines losing all three. But as they enter the final three-game stretch of the season, Polk has placed itself in perfect position for a conference championship and playoff run.
“We felt like we would be in the mix for the WHC title at this time,” Ollis said. “It was a big part of our preseason preparation to have an opportunity to have a chance to finish on top at the end of the conference.
“Still a long way to go, but we have placed ourselves in a position where we can control our own destiny.”