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Bearcats fall to Owen in last gasp for WHC title, but seem playoff-bound


By Pete Zamplas-Hendersonville’s hopes for a Western Highlands Conference title “three-peat” disappeared Friday, with a loss to co-frontrunner Owen 31-14.

HHS (5-5 overall) is 3-2 in the WHC, behind the Warhorses (8-1; 5-0) and also Polk County (6-3; 4-0 WHC) which had Friday off. Had Hendersonville beaten Owen, the teams would have tied at 4-1 in the WHC.

HHS wraps up the regular season Nov. 8 at Polk, after its bye week. Owen, in its regular-season finale Nov. 1, hosts Polk for the title. Both squads have won six in a row. Owen lost only to Reynolds this year. The Warhorses average 43 points and Polk 35.5 this season.

The loss Friday snapped HHS’ three-game conference winning streak, which followed three losses in a row starting with one to North Henderson.

But HHS should make the playoffs, with four WHC squads expected to go. At worst, HHS could slip to a tie with Madison for fourth. Even so, HHS wins the tie-breaker, having beaten Madison 30-28 on Oct. 4. The top five in the WHC are now 2-A schools, with HHS moving up a notch. Only WHC-winless Avery and Mitchell remain 1-A.

For once in its HHS game, Owen had the most prolific star — in Jager Gardner, a 250-yard-a-game runner. The slashing 6-foot-4 junior tailback rushed for 177 against HHS — mostly inside behind a huge line, also often around left end.

HHS dual threat quarterback Cole Cleary ran for both HHS touchdowns. His first finally put HHS on the board, in the third, and down 21-7.

But Senior Night was marked by a cold chill, and countless missed scoring chances. HHS’ offensive line was called for illegal procedure nearly a dozen times, supposedly moving slightly in reaction to Owen defenders jumping around. But the main penalty was an HHS block away from the play in the end zone. That negated a long TD reception by Derrik Doyle with 1:27 to go in the opening quarter, that would have cut the lead to 14-7.

Showing versatility in the offense, lanky sophomore Michael Schmidt at times quarterbacked and often threw to Cleary who shifted to receiver. Schmidt had filled in at QB during the losing streak, when junior Cleary was hurt. Cleary picked off a pass. But two interceptions by Owen sparked Warhorse scoring drives.

Hendersonville coach B.J. Laughter was impressed with his team’s tenacity, and second-half comeback.

All four high schools in Henderson County lost at home Friday. North Henderson (3-6, 2-3 WNC Athletic Conference) fell to Pisgah (7-2, 4-1), in Brett Chappell’s return to Henderson County after departing East Henderson. East lost to unbeaten Franklin and West fell to Tuscola (7-2, 4-1), to each drop to 0-9.

The challenge for a first win remains steep next Friday, as West hosts Franklin and East is at Tuscola. North Henderson plays a likely shootout at Brevard (4-5, 2-3), which just lost to Smoky Mountain (5-4, 3-2).

Then on Nov. 8, 3-A North is at 2-A Smoky to help decide WNCAC mid-pack standings and playoff berths. East meets West in the historic rivalry; both schools opened in 1960-61. It is possible both will seek their only win; if so, the clash might be termed the Pride Salvage Bowl.

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