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Henderson Knights’ charge up the ranks

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By Pete Zamplas –

North Henderson Knights’ football roundtable rallies around second-year head coach Jason Dinwiddie, and star quarterback Zack Gahagan who leads the five-receiver spread attack.

Rival coaches acclaim dual-threat Gahagan as the Western North Carolina Athletic Conference’s best veteran play catalyst. The six-foot-two, 195-pounder is a three-sport senior star. He has verbally committed to play baseball for UNC-Chapel Hill, and said he is getting looks from pro scouts. He starred in various elite baseball leagues this summer, including one this week in Syracuse, N.Y. for 2014 major league prospects.

Quarterback Gahagan threw for 2,041 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2012. He loves the pass-happy (335 throws) spread attack. The strong-armed quarterback is now stronger and faster, has improved throwing touch and accuracy, and is learning poise to “stay in the pocket” more rather than scramble, Coach Dinwiddie said.

He said it is “awesome” to coach the smart, “even-keeled” Gahagan, and said he blends drive to win with calming humor. “He can lighten it up. Quarterbacks face a lot of pressure. If they’re too serious all of the time, it’s hard to overcome mistakes.” Gahagan said, “I’m competitive. But if you crash them with hatred about dropped balls, it won’t help you or the team. Now, if a ball is dropped, I’ll say ‘next time, buddy, we’ll get it.’ If they get that encouragement, they stay loose and do better.”

His prime option remains shifty receiver Dalton Whitaker, the fastest (4.48 in the 40) Knight. The junior is fiery, and the most talkative player in purple, white and gold. A new weapon is leaping 6-2 Cory Foster, to go with a quick trio of Tyler Sargent, Nick Roberts and Eric Aguirre. North often deploys all five receivers in an up-tempo, no-huddle spread.

Dinwiddie excelled with it, with at 4-A Raleigh Wakefield. His last QB there, Connor Mitch, threw for 3,900 yards and 51 scores in 2011 and is now with S.C. Gamecocks. The coach said that at North, “we’ve changed our protection scheme” to buy more pass-route time. Dinwiddie said receivers are faster this year. Catching the ball is paramount. “Last year, we dropped 105 footballs,” he said. “If we caught half of those, that’s an additional 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. It’s the difference between 2-9 and a (possible) 5-6 record” in 2012.

Backs Caleb Rogers, a slasher, and strong Tucker Garren give some offensive balance along with Gahagan’s own running. Knight blockers are John Beal, Aaron Gaffey, Eric Reyes, Alex Hernandez and Austin Frickel. The line’s weights are 255, 240, 235, 225 and 210. They are agile, with endurance. “I’d rather be smaller, quicker and stronger” than opponents, Dinwiddie said. “I want guys who can go for four quarters.”

After a workout Monday, Dinwiddie told his troops they are “strong, smart, tough and quick” and can outmuscle and outhit bigger foes. He earlier noted “we busted our tails in the weight room. Strength-wise, we’re a complete 180.”

Linebackers in the 4-4-3 defense are Tucker Garren, Brandon Staton, Robbie O’Shields and Garrett Moore. Defensive linemen include Ashton Woodring, Justin Lee and Randy Melvin. The secondary has Roberts, Whitaker and Aguirre.

North’s main hurdle last year, beyond learning a new system, was a defense too generously yielding points — often 40 or more. The explosive offense “doesn’t matter, when you don’t play good defense,” Dinwiddie said. “We score points. But we do not want to get into a track meet, and try to outscore teams.”

Greater strength and ferocity can turn around the defense. The coach told his players he expects “great defense, efficient and consistent offense, and crazy special teams” play. He wants defenders to line up with confidence, “go 100 mph, and hit people in the mouth.”

Dinwiddie is making marks as a tactician, and clever motivator. He said defense starts with taking the field with confidence. In urging quicker initial moves, he quipped on Monday that “I could darn near eat a sandwich, by the time you got off the ball.”

“Coach Dinwiddie is the best for North, for turning it around,” Gahagan said. “He doesn’t let anything slide in practice, or class. He doesn’t favor anybody. He keeps his word.” He said of the Knights, “everybody’s gotten stronger. Half our team is seniors.”

“Coach Dinwiddie is the best for North, for turning it around,” Gahagan said. “He doesn’t let anything slide in practice, or class. He doesn’t favor anybody.” Gahagan sees an upsurge in a squad that returns eight starters on offense, and seven on defense. “Half of our team is seniors. Everybody’s gotten stronger. We’re expecting a good, seven-win season.”

Best chance for wins include against WNCAC rivals West Henderson, Brevard, Smoky Mountain and Tuscola. The Knights will joust for a top-four conference finish, chasing frontrunners Franklin, Pisgah and East Henderson. Bumped up by reclassification, North joins East and West as a 3-A school.

North Henderson opens its non-conference season against three area powers — at Roberson Aug. 23, before hosting Swain Sept. 6 and Hendersonville Sept. 13.

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