North QB Kalin Ensley (15) cuts upfield, evading Bearcats Quintin Wright (2) and Tyrese Cauley (90) Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- North Henderson is bound to shake off a home loss to Hendersonville Friday, to surge forward on the heels of winning its first two road games and with another local rival up next.
HHS Bearcats (3-1) can rejoice over winning the unofficial Henderson County championship, after beating the other three local teams in succession — West Henderson, East and now North. “That team’s gonna go far,” new North head coach Justin Clark said of HHS. The Bearcats hope for payback Friday, in hosting strong Reynolds.
The Knights (2-2) have already jousted with honor. They opened by dropping a close defensive battle (19-15) to T.C. Roberson in the mud. But they won the next two — 19-14 at Polk County, then 31-28 at annual powerhouse Swain. Most impressive was coming from Swain (sWaIN) with the “W-I-N,” instead of usual Swain pain. North had a winning mark of 7-5 in ’15, with 4-3 in the WNC Athletic Conference.
North is off this Friday, then tangles at West to open WNCAC play. West rolled 38-14 at North Buncombe. Quarterback Brandon Whitaker scampered down the left side, for a 50-yard score and a 7-6 lead. Then with West in the red zone, he raced around the right side for his second rushing score in seven minutes. West hosts powerful Heritage Friday, in a clash of titanic rushing offenses. East, off last week, welcomes Polk.
Knight-Bearcat ties go back to youth ball, playing with or against each other. QB Kalin Ensley (6-3, 180 so.) said HHS standout Leon Cooks is his nephew. North’s recent upsets of the Bearcats include 48-17 at HHS last year.
This time, North led HHS 8-7 at the end of a very close first half. Big-play sensation Mikey Smithers (5-11, 205 sr.), an inside linebacker, ran a fumble recovery in for a touchdown — for the third time in North’s first four games. He said it “felt amazing” to do so. He ran one back 94 yards versus Polk.
Smithers scooped up the ball at the Bearcat 25, and raced in. Seeing no nearby foe, Smithers did not have to smother the ball to secure it. Instead as he said, “I picked the ball up, and went” the distance, accelerating quickly to flee pursuers. Smithers’ tackle in the HHS end zone scored a safety, for the only points by either team in the final quarter. He makes eight tackles per game.
Right after Smithers’ TD, North “Lammons-ated” HHS on a two-point conversion. Swiftest Knight Darren Lammons (5-9, 142 jr.) took a direct snap, and dashed to the right and in for the 8-7 edge.
HHS had opened scoring with its own speedster receiver, Tykel Landrum, taking a screen from Bud Williford and racing 64 yards down the left side to the end zone. Williford rolled left and hit Landrum on a cross pattern, for a 32-yard score as HHS scored four TDs in a 5:17 span of the third quarter, to pull away. Williford connected with Leon Cooks for a 32-yard scoring play, as he threw for 255 yards.
Ty’rese Hunt ran for two HHS TDs; one was set up by Landrum’s punt return to the two. Blaine Sharpe blocked an end zone punt. Demetrius Smith snatched the ball inside the 10, and sprinted in.
“The wheels fell off,” Coach Clark said of the third quarter. HHS head coach Jim Sosebee said he told his troops at halftime to “quit scuffling, and go for it” better. They sure did.
Yet North has firepower. Two-way threat Ensley is fast (4.6) and NHHS’s top rusher, with nearly 200 yards. He is inconsistent in passing accuracy. But he threw for three scores and ran for another, at Swain. Clark sees Ensley’s emerging “maturation,” in running the spread offense.
Darren Lammons had 131 yards and two TDs, on nine catches versus Swain. Last year, no. one averaged 18.4 yards, on 28 catches for 516 yards and six TDs. He has already surpassed that reception total with 31 in four games, which is second-best in WNC, for 381 yards and three TDs. He punts (38 ypp.). He added a pick Friday. Other receivers include his brother Miguel Lammons (5-9, 150 sr.), Austin VanHoy (5-5, 145 sr.) and Devon Graham (6-2, 160 sr.).
Center Damian Murphy (5-11, 284 sr.) anchors the line. He said the team is “working harder” than ever under Clark.
Running backs include Colby Thomas (5-5, 140 sr.), who slices through gaps, and gutty VanHoy. North’s two 5-5 stars are fierce. Fireplug free safety VanHoy has been making big plays on both sides of the ball for four years. He is fast (4.7), and quick to the ball. He ran a kickoff 99 yards for a TD at Swain.
He is the sole reigning all-WNCAC Knight. VanHoy picked off four passes in ’15 and one Friday, averaged 10.4 tackles in ’15 and 10 again this year. Above all, he causes pivotal turnovers and is a leader. “Austin quarterbacks our secondary,” Clark said.
VanHoy said, “We feed off of the big plays,” such as moving the ball after forcing a turnover. He cites camaraderie and confidence as bonuses. “We work together very well. If we have a bad bump in the road, we keep spirits up and carry on.”
DE Cameron Bumgarner (6-3, 190 sr.), DT Van-Dale Gray (6-2, 280 sr.), OLB Gabe Walker (5-10, 205 jr.) and SS Kingston Thomas (5-11, 183 sr.) also lead the D. “I’m excited about our defense,” Coach Clark said. “We’ll compete anywhere — on a parking lot, or cow pasture.” After the HHS loss he urged players to build on positives, do more on offense, and focus on the pivotal WNCAC slate. He espouses the proverb “his hunger urges him on,” and to keep fighting and win close games in the fourth quarter, players noted.
Justin Clark, 32, quarterbacked Western Carolina U. for three years. He coached the offense at Boiling Springs (S.C.), and North View (Ga.), and QBs at power Gaffney, S.C. in the past two years. He molded five QBs into all-staters and college players. He follows J.D. Dinwiddie, who now coaches Roberson.
Clark said he reaches to players on a “personal level.” Many Knights complimented his football smarts and style to The Tribune. CB Graham said Clark has given much “technical” tips, such as “technique to help our coverages.” They said he is less a yeller, and more of an encourager who explains how to correct mistakes. As VanHoy said, “we connect with him.”