‘If you can’t beat or tackle them, then facemask ‘em.’ That seems the motto of Red Devil Nichorie West (23). He was penalized for yanking the mask of HHS star Tykel Landrum (7), on this long gain. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
The sixth straight Bearcat victory sets up their much-anticipated rematch this Friday, with green-clad demons of sorts — the 12-0 Mountain Heritage Cougars led by all-time WNC career rushing leader Trey Robinson.
The state quarterfinal is at 7:30 p.m. in E.L. Briggs Stadium in Burnsville, north of here where it is normally chillier. Winds swirl in “The Pit,” for an even worse wind chill. Thus, call the battle the next one in the rivalry’s Cold War — or World War III, given the rivalry’s intensity.
“We’re gonna come in ready for ‘war’ and revenge” for a last-second loss on Sept. 22, Bearcat three-way star Tykel Landrum vowed.
HHS head coach Jim Sosebee said, “We know it’s such a huge game. The winner goes to the regional championship. We’ll give it our best shot.”
Landrum said “if we beat Heritage, it’s going to mean a lot. We are going to practice hard all week. We are a different team” from the first meeting. “We know they are better, too.”
Hendersonville (10-3) is in double digits in victories. Last Friday, the Bearcats charged to leads of 28-0 then 42-14 at halftime over 11th-seeded Red Springs (9-4). The visitors’ bus broke down during the five-hour ride.Then on the field, the Red Devils were broken early and often by the Bearcats.
Bud Williford threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for two TDs in the first half. He opened scoring with a two-yard keeper, and later ran four yards for a score. The initial Red Devil drive set up first and goal, and reached the three. But it the Bearcats stopped it there, on fourth down.
Right away, HHS struck again. Williford threw a long pass to Kalin Ensley, who beat the defender and raced untouched for a 97-yard score. Coach Sosebee did a brisk pump fist as the play worked to perfection, and Ensley dashed right by him on the home/left sideline. Ensley also caught a second-half TD pass.
Ty’rese Hunt charged eight yards off tackle into the end zone, for the first of his two rushing TDs.
The defense scored twice. Linebacker McGuire Hunter recovered a fumbled Red Devil handoff in the end zone, for his first-ever varsity TD. HHS made three interceptions in the first half.
Cornerback Landrum returned a “pick six” 75 yards in waning seconds of the first half. He got to the ball, after linebacker Cole McMurray swiped it out of the receiver’s hands. Sosebee had called a timeout anticipating a punt, but the Devils instead went for it and it backfired. “Lucky for us they did that,” Sosebee said.
“Our guys on defense played great,” Sosebee said. “They were flying around everywhere.”
Undefeated, second-seeded Cougars are not Green Devils by name, but rather in minds of much of Bearcat Nation. The Cougars have absolutely been the supreme HHS arch-rival this decade, as many excitingly-close and high-scoring contests attest.
The third-seeded Bearcats are eager to exorcise demons of losing earlier this season to MHHS, by a 28-22 count. Heritage rushed to a 22-7 halftime lead. HHS rallied with two scores to tie it at 22. But the Cougars scored the winning TD with 18 seconds left.
Yet frustration works both ways. HHS is the sole team to defeat Heritage in the last three regular seasons. The Bearcats won by 20 last year at home. A year earlier, in 2015, they prevailed in a 48-44 thriller that typifies this dramatic series and previews very likely might happen this Friday. Heritage averages 46 points, and HHS 38.
These two teams and Mitchell, a smaller 1AA school, often ended in three-way ties atop the 2A/1A Western Highlands Conference (WHC).
Kalin Ensley snares this catch a mile ahead of Red Devil Nichorie West, and goes the distance on a 97-yard bomb to put the game away. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
This season, HHS moved up into the all-2A Mountain Six. The mid-year Heritage game this time was not an early conference showdown. Yet much pride was at stake, when the green visitors rolled into town.
Heritage earned the higher seed, with its unbeaten mark and rushing onslaught that controls the clock. Heritage averages 400 yards rushing with 4,847, and with 153 will reach 5,000 yards. MHHS set a state mark with 6,254 rushing yards in ’09, when reaching the state title game with their Wing T spread triple option. The Cougars rushed for 385 yards last week, completed one pass, and did not need to punt. Every week is “rush week” for them.
“Their offensive line blocks you up, so well,” Sosebee said. “You know what they’ll do. But you can’t stop their running,” but rather contain and limit the scores.
Also, he said, “you hope to slow the game down some” with HHS’ own running. Thus 1,200-yard rusher Hunt is a pivotal weapon, along with QB Williford’s option keepers and scrambles.
Williford keeps progressing in staying sharp, when coming into a new series after a long layoff due to the other team’s long drive, Sosebee said. That challenge is daunting. “The last time we only got to run 37 plays” against the Cougars, Sosebee said. “The less we have the ball, the less chance we have to score.” Thus, HHS needs to cash in on its red-zone chances.
“Humble and hungry” is MHHS head coach Joey Robinson’s motto. He observes that “the bigger the stage, the better they are.” The squad’s downside is tending to ease up on leads, and surrender points in bunches. Last week MHHS raced to a 38-14 lead and hung on, to edge seventh seed Whiteville (11-2) by 52-44. But so far, the confident Cougars won all shootouts. That may change Friday, against the much more versatile Bearcats in the Catscratch Bowl.
Both teams feature gutsy senior quarterbacks built like fullbacks, who break tackles and D-coordinators’ hearts. Williford, a former fullback, is peaking as a dual-threat heading Hendersonville’s Greater Chamber of Offense. He is by far the more prolific passer playing Friday — with 3,150 yards and 31 TDs, and 14 interceptions. As a bonus, Williford has run for 10 TDs and over five yards per carry.
Heritage senior QB Trey Robinson has reverse stats. He burst far past the 8,000 mark as WNC’s all-time career rushing leader, as well as its rushing scorer. Bruising six-foot, 207-pound Robinson reaches 3,000 this season with 264 more ground yards. If he beats HHS, he should get there.
He has run for 2,736 yards in 2017, averaging 10 yards a smash-mouth pop. He has rushed for an amazing 41 TDs this year — including seven last week, to average 3.4 TD runs per game.
Robinson ran for four TDs and 178 yards, versus HHS. He twice topped 325 yards. He ran for nearly 500 yards in the first two playoff games. First came 223 yards (7.7 ypc.) on 29 carries and four scores, in the 50-28 win over Lexington Senior. Then last Friday, he ran for 271 yards (8.7 ypc.) on 31 rushes.
Robinson scored all seven Cougar TDS including runs of 52 and 29 yards, and every MHHS point. He converted two-point runs on five of seven tries.
Trey, Joey’s son, is reigning WHC player of the year. “He’s a very good player,” said Landrum, among hard-hitting defenders. “Our defense is going to have to play our best game, and come ready. Because Trey is gonna run the ball all night.” Landrum realizes “we have to be smart, to realize when they pass the ball as well.”
An unrelated Robinson — Dathan — is Robin to Trey’s Batman. Dathan, a 1,200-yard rusher, ran for 159 yards (6.9 ypc.) on 23 attempts then 111 yards on 19 carries in the playoffs. Against HHS, he ran for 147 yards. MHHS has a “full house,” with two Robinsons and three Randolphs who run the ball.
The victor Friday next plays the winner of top West seed Reidsville versus fourth-seeded South Columbus. Trey Robinson said of his school’s first state title in any sport that “we talk about it all of the time. We have since I was five” and the waterboy for that ’09 squad.
Landrum is also confident. “Once we beat them (MHHS), we’re gonna be focused on getting to the state championship.”