Elijah Nickell (1) throws a halfback option TD pass to Jacob Burnette (2) for West Falcons, who won their opener 30-28 Friday. Jason Wallace (6) blocks. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- Three of the four local four high school football teams won openers Friday for the first time in years, as West Henderson’s maddening see-saw 30-28 win over Madison was the first Henderson County varsity triumph on new artificial turf.
East Henderson also won a close high-scoring contest, 35-28 at Rosman for its first win in two seasons. The Eagles debuted superbly under new head coach Justin Heatherly.
The other new local field general, North Henderson’s Zach Wilkins, was the first of likely a slew of clear-cut victims of state title-caliber Hendersonville (HHS). HHS put it away 37-0 at halftime, winning 58-7. Since two local squads played each other, three winners was the most possible — and that happened.
Jason Wallace (6) zooms by Madison’s 280-pound Kennedy Snelson (77), to score. Falcon Josh Candler (51) blocks ahead, in the end zone. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
North hosts East this Friday at 7:30 p.m., while West welcomes HHS. County and school officials are rededicating each of the three new turf fields in home openers. They will be at North Friday. They cut a ribbon last Friday at West’s vivid blue and red-decorated Johnson Field. The festive feel was “awesome,” West principal Shannon Auten said with a smile.
“This is a dream come true,” County Board of Commissioners Chr. Mike Edney told The Tribune. “We’ve worked with the school system, to improve these fields.” Edney fought for turf fields for years, often alone until his colleagues came to unanimously authorize the $2.7 million project for East, North and West Henderson fields.
School board members also quickly rallied behind turf. Supt. Bo Caldwell noted it was about timing. He said they previously put off new fields to tackle other priorities — such as building and repairing facilities. “Now that we’re taking care of those needs, it’s time for the new fields.” He noted soccer, youth football and others also use these fields and benefit from a safer surface. It will cost another $200,000 to redo tracks at the three schools.
Rick Wood, retired West basketball coach great, helped coached JV Falcon football at times. “This is a long time coming,” he said. He praised the new field’s efficient drainage. Several note turf technology has improved, so the delay resulted in a better and longer-lasting product.
Turf fields even help recruit better coaches, Wood noted. He found out from physical therapist Dwayne Durham, East assistant coach and coaching search committee member, that several coaching candidates turned down East partly for having to tend to a grass field and deal with greater injury risks. West two years ago had to play on two Saturdays in a row, were out of synch and lost a chance to win a conference title.
West quarterback Dalton Cole, among others, said he feels more consistent traction running on turf than sod when dry — let alone soggy from rain. Action is typically faster, and the field warmer which helps in later colder games.
Cutting the ribbon for West Henderson’s new artificial turf are County Commission Chr. Mike Edney and school board Chr. Amy Lynn Holt. County commissioners and officials are at left. School officials are at right. West principal Shannon Auten is near center, behind school board members. She is the tallest of the group. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
The field was not the only new twist for West. The Falcons signaled Friday how they will run often as usual, but throw many more deeper passes and think outside the offensive box. Trickery clicked for head coach Paul Whitaker’s staff. RB-WR Elijah Nickell (5-9, 165 sr.) took a snap, and threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Burnette (6-0, 171 jr.) down the right side. Trenton Gasperson (5-8, 185 sr.) ran for a two-pointer, and 14-6 lead with 3:37 left until halftime.
“Everything was clicking and going great” as scoring picked up and West’s offense felt unstoppable, Nickell said.
West looks to throw more often and deeper than in a decade, with the strong arm of Cole (6-3, 192 sr.). He sailed a 47-yard touchdown pass to Zach Allison (5-9, 148 jr.). A few plays earlier, a TD pass was nullified by a holding call. West soon punted but got the ball back, and again threw deep down the left side to strike paydirt.
“We’re more balanced on offense; people can’t key on our running as much,” Cole said about the blue birds taking to the air. Cole threw merely ten times, but for 116 yards as he averaged 23. Three of his five completions were to Kyle Porter (6-4, 193 jr.), for 72 yards. That passing combo extends tradition of a few tall West basketball standouts also playing football.
Cole said the offense’s confidence grew steadily as the teams exchanged scores, and he felt West had another one if needed. Instead, the defense held and West used up the clock.
Three three days before a rare solar eclipse shaded the earth, West with a smaller than usual line eclipsed a much larger Madison team. This shows the Falcons have a fighting chance against behemoths in the elite 3A Western Mountain Athletic Conference it joined. The Patriots front averages 289 pounds. Behind it, burly 240-pound TB Ty Snelson ran for 109 yards and two scores.
The Mills River Maulers countered with their usual running depth, rotating between five backs. Three each carried the ball about a dozen times, two others a half-dozen rushes a piece. They took turns making pivotal runs and scoring jaunts, and serving as featured back in a drive while the others rested to do better on defense.
Gasperson made several early, long gains. He ran for 88 yards. Jason Wallace (5-8, 190 sr.) ran five plays in a row for 38 of his 65 yards, to devour the clock’s final two and a half minutes. He said he welcomes carrying the load like that, whenever needed. He averaged 4.5 yards a carry in ’16.
Peyton Dimsdale (5-11, 175 so.) ran for 46 yards, wearing no. 4 of last year’s workhorse Peyton Frisbee and getting a dozen carries. An even younger back — fast freshman Keyaris Cash (5-7, 158) — gained 49 and Nickell 46 on the ground.
Other running threats include Ricky McKenzie (5-10, 201 jr.) and Tim Eplee (5-9, 140 sr.). Most Falcons play both ways; Eplee made an interception; he had four INTs in ‘16. Cole, a former receiver, also ran well. He scored the very first county TD on turf, with a one-yard plunge up the gut.
The teams combined for 630 rushing yards, nearly matching each other. West sustained longer drives, to use up clock. Both teams made long gains.
Whitaker cited some “open-game jitters,” such as twice not scoring once inside the 10, and the 3-5 base defense missing tackles and giving up several long gains. But overall he was pleased with the Falcons’ performance.
They seemingly need an other-worldly effort this Friday, when hosting HHS in a preview of athletic WMAC action. Hendersonville had too many home games, and switched the West game to away, Whitaker noted. West in turn goes to East Sept. 1.
After that comes the first of two “My 40” TV Thursday night games for West — at North Buncombe to start the eight-game WMAC slate and earlier 7 p.m. starts. West is on TV again Oct. 12 at North Henderson.
West surged in the last half-decade in the WNC Athletic Conference (now Mountain Six). West was its runner-up in ’15. “We upped our games against the Franklins and Pisgahs,” upsetting both then, Coach Whitaker said. “We were building something good, knocking on the door” of a crown. “Our kids are excited about new rivalries, and look forward to new