Each postgame this season, Polk County’s football players have gathered near midfield. They’ve sung, they’ve listened to head coach Bruce Ollis, they’ve performed their traditional victory chant.
Two things that weekly occurrence has shown – the tight-knit squad assembled in blue and white this season, and the fact that Polk County has been winning a lot of games.
The 6-0 Wolverines head into the start of Western Highlands Conference play on Friday, celebrating Homecoming as well with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against Madison. Homecoming festivities will begin at 5 p.m. with a parade through downtown Columbus, which will close Mills Street for the duration of the parade.
It’s the best start for a Polk County team since 2010, a perfect beginning built on a combination of a steady rushing attack offensively and a defense that has been stellar every week. Ollis simply smiles when asked if he envisioned a perfect run through non-conference play.
“We didn’t blow a lot of smoke, but the coaches at the start knew we had a pretty good football team,” he said. “What we’ve done isn’t ordinary, it’s extraordinary.”
If Polk County entered the season with any questions, those centered around its offensive skill positions, where a host of fresh faces were sprinkled throughout the lineup. Thus far, the Wolverines have aced all of those points.
Sophomore quarterback Bryce Jergenson has been steady, completing 68 percent of his passes and throwing for seven touchdowns with just two interceptions while running for three scores. Junior transfer Gage McSwain and freshman Angus Weaver are second and third on the team in rushing and have a combined 11 rushing and return touchdowns.
“Lukas Tipton and Cam Blackwell were really the only two guys we had coming back with any experience on offense,” Ollis said. “I certainly can’t say enough about the job Bryce has done. He comes up here and spends about four hours with me every Saturday watching film. He wants to get better.
“Our running game really has come along well. We have five or six kids who can tote the mail and do it well. From our quarterback to our fullbacks and slot backs, no one can focus on any one guy.”
The same can be said of Polk County’s defense, which has been dominant for much of the season.
Through six games, the Wolverines have allowed just 48 points. Of the six touchdowns that Polk has allowed, three have been on the ground, three via the pass. The Wolverines set a school record against East Henderson, allowing minus-40 yards rushing, and even have added two scores on Evan Miller’s interception return for a touchdown at North Gaston and Weaver’s safety against East Henderson.
Senior Chase McSwain leads the team in tackles, with Weaver close behind. Trey Thompson’s 15 tackles for loss are among the most in the mountains. Polk already has 10 interceptions, led by Tyler Staley’s three.
“Those guys go out every week and expect to shut people out,” Ollis said. “That’s a good feeling for a coach. They take exception to the fact when someone gets a first down and they take exception when someone scores. They’re really playing well together.
“One of our mantras is that we want to see 11 white hats around the football. Our kids swarm the football. They are relentless.”
On both sides, Polk County has emerged as a selfless squad, and Ollis credits that as much as the talents of his players for the early-season success.
“What we have is a group of guys who don’t care who gets credit. They just want to win,” Ollis said. “That’s vitally important to being successful. That selflessness is hard to find this day and age.
“Our players have developed a business-like attitude. We talked about it on the trip to Bostic (last week’s win at East Rutherford), we were taking a business trip and we needed to take care of business.”
Taking care of business in the Western Highlands Conference over the next five weeks is going to be a challenge. The conference is as strong as it’s ever been, with five of the six teams posting winning non-conference records. Mitchell, Polk County and Mountain Heritage have been ranked in various state polls, Avery has its best team in some time and Owen appears set to be a WHC threat once again.
“Avery may be the most improved team in Western North Carolina,” Ollis said. “Avery’s 4-2, Owen’s 3-2, Mitchell is undefeated, Mountain Heritage is 4-1. Throw us in the mix and we’re 6-0. We’ve all done well against non-conference competition.
“Now we’ve got to figure out who the best is among us. You’ve probably got to go undefeated if you’re going to win the Western Highlands Conference championship. For coaches, I think a conference title is just as important as a state title, to some degree. We’d like to hang another conference banner.”
That quest begins Friday against a Madison team still looking for its first win of the season. Regardless of that fact, the Wolverines know conference play has arrived and the 6-0 start is just a building block toward one of the team’s goals.
“We take a lot of pride in what we’ve done,” Ollis said. “But at the same time, we can’t rest on our laurels.”