Offseason weight training. Summer 7-on-7 passing leagues. Preseason two-a-days. Nine Friday nights of buckling up the chin straps and battling the competition.
All of it, for Polk County, leading up to a November Friday night trip to Owen and a shot at a Western Highlands Conference championship.
Just as the Wolverines planned.
“We are where we want to be,” said head coach Bruce Ollis. “It is the goal of every team to put themselves in position to win a conference title. It is a big deal.
“As coaches, we will attempt to carry on business as usual. We will not have to clue our guys in the importance of this game. We will approach it this game like every game we play – it will the be the most important game we ever play because it is our next game.”
The 7:30 p.m. kickoff (WJFJ-AM, 1160) at Owen promises to be another classic Polk-Owen matchup. Since the series began in 2005, six of the nine meetings have been decided by eight points or less, including the last three. Polk County has won seven straight in the series, Owen’s last win an 18-14 triumph in 2006. An Owen win Friday night gives the Warhorses the undisputed WHC title. A Polk County win ensures the Wolverines at least a share of the WHC title, with a chance to claim it outright next week against Hendersonville, and the conference’s top seed for the 2A state playoffs.
But history won’t help the Wolverines stop Owen’s prolific offense, averaging almost 500 yards per game and led by junior running back Jager Gardner. Western North Carolina’s leading rusher, with a WNC single-game record of 459 yards against Avery earlier this season, Gardner will present Polk with its primary, but not only, defensive challenge. For inspiration, the Wolverines can look to last year’s 28-21 win, when Polk held Owen to 25 second-half yards.
“Very talented big back with sprinter’s speed,” Ollis said of Gardner. “Certainly, we will have to contend with him. Yet he cannot be our only focus. He has quite a good supporting cast. Owen is not 8-1 just because of him, but no doubt he will be one of the better backs we have had to defend.
“In most cases, as a defense, you have to swarm the ball. Owen runs the ball more than 75 percent of the time. We know what we have to do to be successful on the defensive side. (Polk County defensive coordinator Jamie) Thompson made a super halftime adjustment a year ago and that had a lot to do with our good play in the second half. An offense that runs the ball as well as the Warhorses is not going to be stopped completely. We must look to prevent the big run and make them earn what they get.”
Owen quarterback Sam Drummond doesn’t throw often, but is averaging more than 18 yards per completion while hitting 56 percent of his passes. Zee Johnston is a dual threat, the team’s second leading rusher with 630 yards and second-leading receiver with 10 catches for 147 yards. Johnston will also returns punts and kickoffs and leads the team with three interceptions.
Polk County will counter with an offense that also can do many things well. One of the strengths for the Wolverines in their current six-game winning streak has been offensive diversity. Quarterback Reece Schlabach personifies that trait, having thrown for 1,420 yards while also posting a team-leading 691 yards rushing.
But there’s also Jordan Smith, the Wolverines’ answer to Johnston as the team’s second-leading rusher, receiver and tackler. Anthony Carson continues to make key plays in every game and has 42 catches for 765 yards for the season. Jamal Tanner and Jerry Cox have emerged as solid targets for Schlabach, with Tanner, Donte Poston and Matt Darden contributing to a rushing game averaging 6.2 yards per attempt.
Expect all that versatility to be on display on Friday night.
“Coach Ford is the defensive coordinator and does a super job with preparation,” Ollis said. “He is also one of the best motivators in high school football, so he will have his guys playing at a fever pitch.
“One of the keys for us will be to keep them off balance. I believe we must be able to run and throw equally well to give our team the best chance to win.”
Just as Owen hungers for its first conference title since 2006, so too are the Wolverines on a quest, looking to claim their first conference banner since 2010. It will be an emotional Friday night in Swannanoa, though Ollis hopes Polk County can temper those emotions once kickoff arrives.
“Normally, teams that win championships are able to maintain an even keel,” Ollis said. “An emotional roller coaster can prevent us from maintaining our focus.
“I have told our players to enjoy the moment and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Photo: Jane Ollis