In the heat of early September, Polk County coaches and players set two goals – turn their 0-3 start into an 8-3 regular-season record and capture a Western Highlands Conference championship.

The Wolverines are now just one step away from accomplishing both.

With a share of the WHC title already in hand, Polk County can claim sole possession of that crown and cap an undefeated run through the conference with a win Friday over Hendersonville as the Bearcats visit The Little Big House for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff (live online stream) in the regular season finale for both schools. It will also be Senior Night for Polk County.

Hendersonville, a traditional WHC power, brings an un-Bearcat-like 5-5 record to Columbus. The Wolverines, meanwhile, enter off perhaps their best effort of the season, last week’s 41-24 victory at Owen. Polk County exploded for 20 unanswered points in the second half to ensure its seventh straight victory, the conference’s top seed for the 2A state playoffs and that share of the WHC championship.

Yet the Wolverines barely celebrated following the win, for in their minds, the journey of the past two months is not yet complete.

“Our goal after starting 0-3 was to finish 8-0,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “We are still one game away from that accomplishment. While we don’t want to understate how big the win was this past Friday at Owen, our players and coaches are focused on finishing 8-0 in our final eight games. A win will allow us to finish undefeated in the conference for the first time. We had the chance in 2003 when we were 11-0 and so was Hendersonville and lost at home on Senior Night.”

Thus Polk County went right back to work this week preparing for a Hendersonville squad that has endured a roller coaster season. The Bearcats lost at Asheville to open the year, won their next two, lost three straight then won three straight before a 31-14 loss to Owen two weeks ago. Hendersonville had an open date last week.

Unlike nearly every opponent Polk County has faced this season, Hendersonville has made heavy use of its passing game, throwing more than running this season. Junior Cole Cleary has thrown for 1,386 yards and also leads the team in rushing with 1,049 yards, presenting yet another dual threat quarterback for the Wolverines to defend.

“For the first time in awhile we are going to see a pass-first, run-second offense,” Ollis said. “They are very explosive with their vertical passing game and keep you honest with a good running attack. Cleary reminds me a lot of Reece (Schlabach). He is a very good dual threat QB that can beat you with his feet or arm.

“The Bearcats have super team speed and we will have to swarm the football and get great pass rush in order to nullify that.”

Raymond Reid leads Hendersonville’s receiving corps with 32 catches for 922 yards and nine scores and set a Western North Carolina record earlier this season with 298 yards against Avery. Bradley Schmidt (28-268-1) and Derrik Doyle (23-340-1) are also favorite targets of Cleary.

Sophomore Terrold Gary, with 422 yards rushing on 63 carries, is the chief threat other than Cleary in the backfield.

Defensively, the Bearcats have shown marked improvement since that three-game losing streak in which they allowed 73 points to North Henderson, Christ School and Mountain Heritage. Hendersonville was able to slow Owen standout Jager Gardner, though Gardner still rushed for 186 yards, and could challenge a Polk County offense that has been tough for anyone to stop during its winning streak.

“They were able to hold Gardner somewhat in check, which gave us confidence to be able to do the same thing,” Ollis said. “They have definitely improved on the defensive side of the ball as the year has gone by.”

With two road games and an open date since the team’s 62-7 win over Mitchell, it’s been almost a month since Polk County last played a home game. The Wolverines walked off the field that night at 5-3, a five-game winning streak providing growing confidence that a winning run to a conference title was indeed possible. They return Friday night set to complete that trek.

“Very gratifying is how I would define it,” Ollis said of the turnaround after the slow start. “Our players deserve a great deal of credit for continuing to believe in our coaching staff. We continued to work hard and maintained our focus during a very difficult start.

“One of the signs in our weight room reads ‘Persistence prevails when all else fails.’ Our staff is exceptionally hard working. I am blessed to be surrounded by this group.”

 Photo: Jane Ollis

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