Cole Cleary snares a long pass, over East Henderson’s Josh Glynn (15).
Hendersonville (3-1) beat all three of the other varsity teams in the county in a row — by 29-20 at West, 44-26 over East then in a hard-hitting contest in Fruitland. West (2-1) is the other county school in the win column. The Falcons took both road games, versus Madison and North Buncombe which they pummeled for a 35-0 lead and eventual 35-28 triumph Friday.
Call the Bearcats the Sonar Cats. “Texas Sonar” is among pre-snap commands by the quarterback, a la Peyton Manning’s famed “Omaha!” shouts. Sonar underwater radar suited HHS on North’s rain-soaked field — lurking to seek and destroy opponents, and lock in on the fabled county title.
“The kids talk about that mythical county championship,” first-year head coach Eric Gash said. “It means a lot to them.” The game avenged a decisive defeat at home to North in 2013. “We let our guard down, and looked past them and their third-string quarterback (Trevor Craft).” Gash added that “we want our guys playing each play as if it’s your last play. Give it your all. Don’t take anyone lightly.”
Quarterback Michael Schmidt threw for a school-record 345 yards and also four scores against East Henderson Sept. 5. The lanky 6-foot-4 junior also ran for a score.
Then versus North, he scored HHS’ first TD on an eight-yard bolt up the middle. Next, he tossed a 27-yard TD pass to Michael Cook. This was right after North turned over the ball on downs, on a fourth-and-24 run from its own six-yard line. Dalton Whitaker took the short snap. He scampered for 21 yards, but was three yards short. The fake punt surprised and angered North coaches, based on their response. HHS led 17-7 after a quarter.
Schmidt threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to senior Cole Cleary, early in the fourth quarter. Cleary (6-2, 190 sr.), the usual QB, has sparkled as a receiver in the three wins. His taped, injured right (throwing hand) pinky had not healed enough for proper ball grip and passing, Gash indicated. Cleary set HHS marks against East, by catching 10 passes for 235 yards and two scores.
Coach Gash said he might leave Schmidt as the main QB, even with Cleary ready. “We’ll keep all options on the table. Schmidt’s timing has improved tremendously. He throws a good ball. He can ‘spin’ it. He’s done great. Yet Cole is such a capable quarterback. He makes all the reads and throws. Cole is getting back into top-notch shape. We’ll put him and the team into the best position, to be successful. If that means putting Cole back at quarterback, absolutely we’ll do that.” He led second-half scoring drives as a running QB, versus West.
Cleary is versatile, “confident” and “fearless,” Gash noted. “He’s preseason all-state, as an athlete. He runs a (very fast) 4.4. He’s tough as nails. He does it all. He encourages the young guys, and pushes the older guys.” Freshman Bud Williford (6-0, 175) quarterbacked varsity in the opener, a loss at powerful Asheville.
Impact freshman Tykel Landrum (5-6, 162) and Jahmel Smith (5-11, 160 sr.) are fast, joining Cleary and Cook (5-11, 160 jr.) as reliable targets.
Workhorse tailback Terrold Gary (5-9, 152 jr.) is “quick between the tackles.” He averaged six yards a carry in 2013. Demetrius Smith (5-7, 150 so.) is fast. Fullback Trey McClure (6-2, 220 jr.) bulldozed for two TDs against West.
The mobile offensive line is RT Adam Rice (6-4, 260 sr.), LT Ethan Canipe (6-4, 260 sr.), RG Wyatt Holbert (6-1, 225 fr.), LG Will Avery (5-10, 185 jr.), center Chance Wilson (5-7, 230 jr.). “Our timing is getting better, as a unit,” Gash said of the offense. “We have great team chemistry. We play (two-way) ironman football. We take pride in being in shape.”
Kicker Drew Eudy (5-7, 155 so.) drilled field goals of 40 and 33 yards Friday.
In the 4-2-5 defense, “we’re flying to the football. By the end of the play, we want to see all 11 jerseys in the picture frame.” D-end Rice made 115 tackles (9.6 tpg) in 2013. Linebackers Kobey Rudisill (5-11, 180 sr.) and McClure are also among crunching defensive playmakers. “Kobey anchors our defense, and makes calls,” Gash said. “Trey is an awesome leader, as well.”
Defensive tackle Evan Gibbs (6-0, 180 sr.) returned an interception 30 yards for the final score Friday. Landrum picked off two passes. CB Blake Lyda (5-9 140 sr.) and DT Blaine Sharpe (6-1, 240 so.) recovered fumbles. “We want to capitalize on the big plays,” Gash said. “When you win the turnover battle, you’ll probably win the game.”
HHS defenders grabbed the ball from West runners, and recovered five of eight fumbles. “We create havoc. We preach takeaways,” Gash said. “The first man holds on. The next man in strips the ball away. That’s our ‘holy grail.’”
HHS has gashed foes before. Eric Gash was a Julius Peppers-like, menacing 6-2, 217-pound Bearcat defensive lineman and 1988 grad. He was an outside linebacker at North Carolina. He tried out for the NFL. His elder brothers Thane and Same Gash both played in the NFL. Sam was an all-pro fullback. He coaches Packer running backs.
Eric Gash coached varsity basketball Lady Bearcats since 2011, and mostly linebackers since ’08. He succeeds B.J. Laughter, who was promoted June 30 to athletic director and assistant principal. Laughter averaged 8.3 wins, totaling 141 in 17 seasons as head football coach.
Gash, 44, teaches math. The ordained minister teaches players “life lessons.” He is the sole black head football coach in WNC, and second ever after Mutt DeGraffenreid (199) in the integrated era. HHS players tout Gash as a bright tactician and peppy motivator.
HHS should be a force in the Western Highlands Conference race. HHS plays at favorite Owen Oct. 24, then hosts defending champ Polk County Nov. 7 in the finale. Coach Gash assures “we’ll be competitive.”
On Friday, HHS hosts private school power Christ School. West welcomes Mountain Heritage, East hosts Polk, while North is at Robbinsville.