West’s Tristan Thomas (1) vies for an interception, as teammate Landon Owen (23) goes after Eagle receiver Austin Fisher (7).
West Region seventh seed West (7-4) hosts Kings Mountain (8-3), in the first Falcon home playoff contest in seven years and first playoff in four seasons. Unbeaten Freedom looms for the winner’s next task. East missed the playoffs.
Hendersonville (7-4) plays at Carver (8-2), in an 11-7 match in 2-A. The victor likely faces Shelby (9-2) in round two. HHS lost a chance for a home playoff by dropping a close 20-17 game at home Friday to Polk County. Polk fullback Jordan Smith ran for 224 yards and three scores.
North Henderson (2-9; 2-5 WNCAC) won its second in a row, 21-6 over Smoky Mountain (2-9; 1-6). The Knights finish ahead of the Mustangs and Brevard in WNCAC standings, and end 2014 on a bright note.
The Bird Bowl in East Flat Rock was between teams that bounced back tremendously from dismal 2013, when they entered their showdown not having beaten anyone else on the field in a low point of the 40-plus year rivalry.
Coach Paul Whitaker’s resurgent West is already six wins better this season than last. Even more impressively, the Falcons were 5-2 for third place just behind Pisgah (8-3; 6-1) in the tough WNC Athletic Association dominated by unbeaten Franklin (11-0). Franklin is in 2-AA playoffs — not in HHS’ 2-A, nor West’s 3-A level.
East ends up 3-8 (3-4) under popular first-year coach Mac McMillan, fifth in the WNCAC behind Tuscola but ahead of three others. East can return most skill-position starters in 2015.
The senior-filled Falcons have now beaten the younger Eagles twice in a row, reversing East’s recent domination. Last year, West won 28-21.
This time a rugged first half was marred by fumbles and penalties, and big hits such as 265-pound Falcon Zack Boyd’s crusher. Both teams scored on five-yard quarterback keepers. First, East’s Austin Pritchard surged up the middle into the “promised land” in the opening quarter. West’s William Crouch countered in the second quarter, sprinting right. He set up his touchdown run with a 22-yard scramble. A missed East extra point was the difference at halftime, with West up 7-6.
In the second half, Pritchard again ran five yards for a score as East retook the lead. But after that the scoreboard froze on East’s side, while West’s offense perked up.
Swift Falcon Cody Jackson zipped in from four yards out. He rushed for over 900 yards and eight TDs this season. Burly fullback Brendan Goings bulldozed for a six-yard TD run. Goings and Jackson combined for 106 yards Friday.
West’s Dustie Fender led ball carriers with 130 yards, including a 35-yarder. East fullback Cole Revis gained nearly half (43 of 98) of his yards on one run.
Meanwhile, in Fruitland, Coach Jason Dinwiddie’s North Knights climbed all over Smoky Mountain by 21-6. “First Knight” Dalton Whitaker wrapped up his brilliant NHHS career, scoring on pass plays of 64 and eight yards. He caught six passes for 122 yards. QB Craft raced 53 yards for the other score. Craft, a junior, racked up nearly 300 total yards of running and passing. He threw for two scores a week earlier, in beating Brevard 42-34.
In Hendersonville, Polk Wolverines (8-3; 5-1 Western Highlands) dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half after the Bearcats (7-4; 3-3) led 10-6 at the break. Polk’s options blended Jordan Smith’s tackle-busting power with outside speed of QB Jamal Wheeler.
Hendersonville couldn’t run as well as usual, and passing accuracy was also down on this cold night. The “Aircat” offense was QB Michael Schmidt to Cole Cleary more than ever. Cleary caught seven passes for 153 yards. A third of that came on a late “bomb” he caught, while falling backward onto the goal line. The ball was ruled down at the Polk one. From there, Cleary ran for the second of his two short two TD runs as a “wildcat” running quarterback.
The drive was set up by a muffed Polk shotgun snap. HHS recovered the onside kick, but when stepping on the sideline. Yet HHS again got the ball right back, ripping the ball away from Smith. Head coach Eric Gash and staff’s ball-stripping training again paid off. Polk’s defense, though, held to clinch the win.
HHS tied for third in the WHC, with Heritage and Mitchell. West Region 2-A top seed Owen was unbeaten in WHC play. The Warhorses shut out runner-up Polk 35-0 on Halloween. A week earlier at home, Owen edged HHS 57-54 in a scoring binge.