Owen Warhorses smash and smother star foe Cody Reece (20).
Charles D. Owen Warhorses and superstar runner Jager Gardner were corralled by Mt. Pleasant Tigers 42-21 Friday, while Asheville Cougars’ comeback against Weddington fell short 28-23 as both West Region top seeds from Buncombe County were ousted at home in round three.
WNC victors were West 2-AA top seed Franklin (by 17-14), 1-AA Swain (35-24), and 1-A Robbinsville over rival Murphy 21-13.
Weddington (3-AA) gave AHS the “Wedding-ton Bell Blues” as a road underdog last year, too. This time, the Warriors thwarted the explosive Cougars with two red zone stops in the final seven minutes. AHS absorbed 119 penalty yards, to 15 for the visitors. On the bright side, Asheville can return a star runner in Reggie Battle in 2015.
Mt. Pleasant faces dynastic Shelby, in the 2-A state semifinals/West title game. Weddington’s next vows to win are versus its conference foe Waxhaw Culbertson.
Faster than you can say that school name or “Swannanoa,” Owen’s home, the Warhorses (12-1) were in a hole in losing for the first time. Mt. Pleasant (12-2) shocked the normally fervent Owen crowd, controlling trenches with a huge line that looked up to 6-foot-6, 320-pound Austin Moore.
Compact junior Tiger back Cody Reece rather than Gardner kept breaking tackles for big gains. He scored four times — three in a row in the first half to break open the contest, after his 73-yard sprint set up the first Tiger TD. He tallied 154 of his 244 ground yards in the first half, on a frigid night.
This was the finale of the Master Gardner’s electrifying four years on varsity, in slicing through defenses for long TDs and mega-stats. The 6-3, 205 recruit of Florida State, Georgia et al finally met his Kryptonite in a sure-tackling, gang-tackling defense. Too often, he fought for few yards. The Warhorse Workhorse ran 24 plays for 147 yards — 93 by halftime.
Gardner finishes with nearly 7,000 rushing yards at Owen. His career mark of 6,955 yards is the new rushing standard in Western North Carolina. A week earlier, he snapped the decade-long record of 6,792 that East Henderson’s Michael Angram set in 2005.
The reserved Gardner blends speed, size and strength. He scored the opening TD on a six-yard gallop, capping an 85-yard, 11-play Warhorse gut-wrenching drive.
The team tied the Owen record for varsity football wins in a season with 12, and won its first Western Highlands Conference title since dominating with five in a row in 2002-06. The Warhorses stampeded foes by an average of 45-21 in 2014. They scored at least 49 in three of their first four games, also three of four prior contests including 88 (an Owen record) then 56 in playoffs.
Fiery head coach Kenny Ford’s 230 wins in 29 seasons are more than any other Owen football coach. B.J. Laughter, longtime head coach at rival Hendersonville (HHS) and now its athletic director, noted the Warhorses play their hearts out for the tough, vocal leader in shorts no matter the chill. “His kids aim to please him. They feed off his wild-guy show. There’s not a person who cares about his players more than this guy does.”
Owen has often beaten bigger and/or faster squads, but this time had superb skill as well. Preseason favorites to win the WHC, they did so by blasting Polk 35-0 on Halloween a week after holding off HHS 57-54.
This offense is hailed as Owen’s most potent since the 1986 team quarterbacked by Brad Johnson, who would win a Super Bowl. Besides Gardner, senior standouts included receivers Zee Johnston, 6-5 Taylor Frizsell and Austin Bennett; DB-KR Chris McHone, linemen Mason Eades and 275-pounder Seth Penley, and QB Sam Drummond. He hit 6-5 senior TE Tate Brown for a 37-yard scoring play, to draw Owen to 28-14 at halftime.
But Tiger Robert Johns returned the second-half kickoff 83 yards, and the margin stayed as bloated as Thanksgiving feasters. Johns made three interceptions. His father Michael Johns coaches the team that cut short Owen championship aspirations.