By Pete Zamplas- A.C. Reynolds reigns supreme in the Western Mountain Athletic Club, but Asheville with a trio of skill stars has a shot of dethroning the Rockets and a reloading Erwin team is again among most dangerous contenders.
Tuscola is as always a gritty challenger, and T.C. Roberson a skilled wild card. North Buncombe and West Henderson have made marked recent improvements, and look for more. Enka and North Henderson each unveil a new varsity star, as they also look to ascend ranks.
Coaches of the nine WMAC teams agree the league is improved across the board, and seems clustered much closer together than usual in talent aptitude. Reynolds head coach Shane Laws sees “a little more parity. Asheville and Erwin will be in the middle of it.
A couple of teams that haven’t been in the top three might get in there. Tuscola and West will be better. Teams that struggled should be better.” He further told The Tribune the title fight can “go to the last few weeks.”
North Buncombe was a marvel in ’18, a model for other teams looking to take a giant step. The Hawks won six times — a five-win upsurge — and jumped to a 4-1 WMAC start.
All nine head coaches spoke at a recent WMAC press conference sponsored by WNC Sports Network. They rated the nine WMAC teams in expected order of finish, picking Reynolds with Erwin just ahead of Asheville.
The Tribune interviewed each squad’s coaches and stars. The Trib’s area football preview pull-out section will profile 19 teams in seven counties. It is slated to come out Aug. 22, on the eve of the regular season.
This WMAC overview is a prelude to in-depth features on all seven Buncombe public high school teams including Owen in the WHC, and Tuscola in neighboring Haywood County. The other two WMAC teams will be looked at more in-depth on Aug. 22, in the Hendersonville Tribune.
Reynolds under Laws has won its latest 32 WMAC contests, and reaches an even 40 by running the table again. The Rockets reached the 2017 3AA state title game. They eye another WMAC crown, then deep playoff run.
“Reynolds is still ‘top dog,’ until someone knocks them out,” Erwin head coach Rodney Pruett said. “They’re established as the king of the mountain. The WMAC championship goes through Fairview.”
“We’re chasing the ‘Mean Green,’”Asheville head coach David Burdette agreed. “They have enough coming back with (WR Jhari) Patterson and (RB Markeese) Jackson” to go with quick new QB Carter Lindsay. “They lost their offensive line. But they’re strong in the secondary, and with linebackers Mark Golden and Micha Hembree.”
Who is in the way of the Rocket point launchers?
Asheville is one, behind Three (Hillier). “We can be the best team in the conference,” Burdette said. The Cougars return battle-tested offensive firepower — particularly with the WMAC’s sole quarterback back in the saddle.
Three Hillier passed for over 3,100 yards, and for 29 TDs versus 12 picks. “Three has a cannon,” Burdette said. Laws said confident Hillier “has poise. He handles pressure situations.”
Hillier often heaves passes to tall Famous Pasley. This Famous combo should again be prolific, and right out of the gate. Justin Campbell is a swift target, and Vyshonne Franklin the main tailback.
Pasley uses “speed and athleticism” to get open, Burdette said. “If he uses his body for leverage, I don’t see anyone who can guard him. Famous can be that dominant.” ACR’s Laws calls Pasley an “exceptional receiver. He has good size, and ability to make plays when defended. We knew he’d catch passes. We eliminated the big plays with him, so he scored no TDs.”
If Asheville’s new but large line and defense develop, it might rival ACR. At the least, the yearly battle for second looms with Erwin — this time on the road. AHS won the showdown in ’17, Erwin in ’18.
Other WMAC teams have new starting quarterbacks brimming with confidence and strong arms such as sophomores Jared Penland of Erwin and Tuscola’s Coleman Bryson, North Buncombe senior Micah Wilson and Enka junior Logan Sanders.
Sanders runs well, Coach Jeff Frady said. “He has a strong and accurate arm, and has height to see the field well.” Sanders said the Jets have much to “prove.”
Wilson is an adept “play-action passer,” NBHS Coach Brandon Allen said. Wilson said “never letting off the gas” is the key to further success. “We’re confident we’re one of the best teams.”
Erwin keeps producing star quarterbacks. Penland said he welcomes the WMAC varsity “challenge,” and to “take on” ACR, AHS and others. The lefty could be the best Erwin QB yet, and is pacing ahead on the learning curve, Erwin QB coach Darrell Clark said. Pruett said “he can be as good as any we’ve had. He has potential. We’ll cater the offense to what he can do well, and support him with the weapons we have.”
Erwin can “take it to the bank” (and “house”) with Tristian Brank, its Gronk-like tight end; also receivers Johnny Peay and Mikey Gettman, and RBs Monty Williams and Keavon Carson.
Run stopper Tyion Lucas is 6-foot-5, and weighs 417 pounds. He is the only WMAC starting football player in memory weighing over 400 pounds.
In Waynesville, they also like their new QB for skill and being unusually calm under pressure. “Coleman has a live arm. He can make all of the throws,” THS Coach J.T. Postell said. “He’s athletic, a dual threat” in Tuscola’s largely rushing offense. Bryson said he is “excited” to take the reins, adding “we’re not afraid of any team.”
These new QBs have weapons around them such as Enka RBs Jackson Smith and and Eli Vassey and WR Shannon Gacusana; N.B. runners Joe Jones and Levi Fender and SE Christian King; and Tuscola new wingbacks Gavin Tannerhill and Garrett Fox.
T.C. Roberson looks to Shak Hill as a fast option-read QB, following big fireballer Ty Gossett. “We’ll roll him out, and ask him to read half of the field,” Coach J.D. Dinwiddie said. “If he doesn’t like what he sees, he’s running.”
TCR’s latest receivers corps is led by Rodney McDay, to go with runners Devin Credle and Robbie Gillian. “Nobody is expecting much from us,” lineman Michael Morris said of TCR sneaking up under the radar. “We’ll be strong.”
The transition to varsity starting QB should be least daunting for Reynolds’ Carter Lindsay, an agile junior in his third year on varsity. He started last year at receiver. “Carter has experience playing in these big games,” Coach Laws said. With his speed “Carter is more of a (Nate) St. Onge quarterback, a true spread option guy” who also made a WR-to-QB transition and started three seasons ago.
Both contrast to rugged Rocket-armed Alex Flinn, star of the last two years. Flinn was a pocket passer, yet powered ahead for key gains.
Charismatic Lindsay noted how St. Onge had such adept football IQ, saw plays develop, and routinely cut upfield at the right moment. He had an accurate arm.
Lindsay admired how Flinn could stay even-keeled after the best or worst of plays. Lindsay said he is higher-strung, wants to contain that at times but also unleash the spirit when in rally mode.
Patterson is a game breaker, a physical and fast receiver who fights for yards after the catch. “Once he gets loose with his strength,” Lindsay said, “with his speed he’s gone.”
As for containing AHS’ Pasley, CB Seth Eberhardt has guarded him one-on-one despite being a half-foot shorter. He said he yielded no receptions to Pasley, in the ’18 game. He used positioning and other technique coached by J.P. Kimbrough, former Hendersonville Bearcat star and Duke player.
Mark Golden is another vocal Rocket leader. “We have to do our job 24/7, to prepare. You gotta own up to” the ACR legacy and expectations. Lindsay added, “we practice with a high motor. We do ‘Friday reps.’ In games, we play hard on every snap.”
West Henderson (quick Keyaris Cash, tough Peyton Dimsdale) and North Henderson (fleet Windall Flowers, strong Zyon Pheoun) rely on runners. New NHHS head coach Jim Beatty, was this league’s co-champ in 2012, leading Roberson.
Meanwhile, Owen Warhorses stampede in 2A Western Highlands battles. Their heralded new QB is Caleb Scott. Head coach Nathan Padgett calls the big junior a “Tim Tebow type.
Caleb has a strong arm, and is a threat to run.” WHC frontrunner Heritage’s Coach Joey Robinson said, “Caleb Scott is going to be a good one. He impressed me when he was their JV quarterback two years ago, and in seven on sevens this year.” Ge said in the WHC “the sleeper is Owen. Nathan does a great job, and does things the right way. His hard work will pay dividends.”