“I can just throw it up to Kalin,” Hunter said. “At 6-4, he’ll get it” over defenders. “He’s the best player on the field,” HHS head coach Jim Sosebee said of versatile Ensley.
West (1-1), which pasted 58 at Madison in week one, is the team the Bearcats (2-0) consider their main local rival of late. Thus, after beating North 49-0 in week one, taking out West was a big step toward winning the unofficial county crown, Hunter said. Hunter, who showed much poise as the quarterback, calls such a clear conquest a “confidence-booster.”
HHS Bearcats get a major test this Friday, hosting Asheville Cougars in the Cat-scratch Bowl. Look for buddies Ensley and Tre’Von Robinson of AHS to try to outdo each other as receivers. Ensley also covers his friend, and confidently grins about that challenge. Nasir Artis, quick HHS receiver, likes matching up against the Cougars. They are the Cats’ most athletic regular-season foes.
Meanwhile, the historic Bird Bowl Friday pits East Eagles at West Falcons. This looms as potentially the most competitive and entertaining clash in a dozen years between the two 58-year-old schools. They have since then taken turns dipping, then reviving.
Lately “West was Best” by Paul Whitaker by winning the last five, to knot the series at 30-30-3. But so far in 2018, “East is a Beast” — making great strides under head coach Justin Heatherly. The Eagles (2-0) scored two dynamic special teams TDs on successive plays versus North, to seize a 24-0 edge on the way to a 48-0 victory. They took out Rosman 40-14 in the opener.
Caleb Shipman of East rivals Ensley as frontrunner for the fictitious Henderson Heisman. He leaped like Lynn Swann to catch Garrett Adkinson’s pass on a shallow crossing pattern. Shipman promptly turned on the burners, racing right to the sideline then to the end zone for a 47-yard score. This was with five seconds left in the opening quarter. Nester Lopez drilled field goal.
Then East quickly struck twice. First, Shipman took a punt return to the right side, then the rest of the 45 yards behind a parade of blockers.
Sophomore Tanner Coggins earned his Eagle wings, on the ensuing kickoff that North fumbled. Coggins promptly snatched the ball on the run, and blazed in untouched for a 25-yard TD. Suddenly, East was up 24-0. Another field goal made it 27-0 at the break.
“They blew it open on the punt return, then then the ‘scoop and score,’” NHHS head coach Zach Wilkins said.
Zay Henderson, North’s QB for much of ’17 before getting injured, shined again as an East running back. He scored on a pair of 27-yard runs in the final quarter. The first one was set up by Adkinson scrambling 22 yards, and the second one by a fumble recovery.
Knights’ Rays of Hope
However, Knight Coach Wilkins sees bright signs to build on. He said after the opening loss to HHS, a week later “our defense improved tremendously — especially in the run game. We still have a long ways to go. But we didn’t play that bad defense. They (Eagles) scored on that short pass, on second and long. But they didn’t score a touchdown again on offense until the fourth quarter.’”
North is quarterbacked by quick Jaret Jystad (5-10, 160 sr.), and moved well on its opening drive. “We executed. We blocked well up front. We hit quick passes,” Wilkins said. He credited East adjustments. “Then they tightened their defense. The safety came down. We had a difficult time stretching the field.” A big key going forward is “we need to get our offense rolling.”
Second-year head coach Wilkins said, “We’re excited about our future. We had a crazy JV game. we won 34-28. We have good young talent coming out.”
East coaches had braced for Windell Flowers (5-10, 185 so.), who was the JV star as a freshman in ’17. “Windell has good vision. He runs hard. He’s tough to tackle,” Wilkins said. But he noted Flowers tore a knee’s meniscus playing basketball late this summer, and will miss at least most of the season. “We planned on Windell as our feature back.” Flowers had surgery, is due out for another month, and at best might be game-ready for the “last couple of weeks,” Wilkins said.
Thus, he switched the offense from the run-first multiple, he instilled last year, back to a spread. The main tailback is quick Josh Blatt (5-7, 145 sr.) Blatt as a wrestler won state titles twice, then was second. “He’s a competitor,” Wilkins said. Carries also go to power runners Triston Norris (5-11, 190 so.), and Zyon Phoeun (5-11, 185 jr.) starting this Friday after he played defense-only for two weeks while nursing a foot injury.
Jystad, also a track hurdler, this year has looked “better at throwing on time,” Wilkins said. “He’s very smart, calm and collected.” His main receiver is Alberto Martinez (6-2, 190 sr.). “He’s our best athlete. We’ve got to get Alberto the ball,” Wilkins said. “He’s faster now. He can take top off the coverage, for deep ball catches.” Also lined out wide are sophs Connor Hunt (6-2, 175 so.) and WR-TE Zachary McDaniels (6-1, 175 so.). Hunt racked up nearly 100 receiving yards against athletic HHS. He is a possession receiver who can also “stretch the field,” Wilkins said. Flankers are Dominick Griesi (5-11, 155 sr.) and Bonham Dockery (5-11, 150 jr.).
Knights back in trench warfare are veterans Curtis Matthews (5-10, 295 sr.) at center, right tackle Brock McKee (6-2, 280 sr.) and quick pulling left guard Jacob Allison (5-10, 230 sr.). Former Roberson head coach Jim Beatty is now an NHHS assistant. “His specialty is the offensive line,” Wilkins said. “He’ll develop them.”
This Friday, NHHS goes to its away Field of Dreams, at football-crazed Swain County. This is the scene of a huge upset. North won there 31-28 in ‘16, then defied the Laws of Payback to prevail 34-28 at home last year for two in a row over that lofty program. “We challenged the kids that week, with Swain’s talent and tradition,” Wilkins said.
It helped to have fast game-breaker Darren Lammons, the “Lammon-ator” on opposing defenses for three years. The ’18 NHHS grad is now a walk-on at Oregon. It is tempting to have Lammons on speed dial, to fly in and sneak in for a few encore Knight plays.
Instead, the young Knights are on their own. Yet they have a chance to shun pressure and let loose, as underdogs and with Swain hungrier yet for payback but facing immense pressure. Wilkins reasons, “We have nothing to lose.”
He noted Swain “struggled too” so far, due to turnovers. Swain fell by 10 at Tuscola, then was demolished 56-6 at Smoky Mountain. Still, “Swain is absolutely huge up front. In their split-back veer, they line up in 1,000 formations,” Wilkins said by phone while watching tape of Swain. “We have our hands full.” But ultimately North’s fate starts internally. “We need to get off to a good start, and get success early on.”
QB Jystad said ahead of the season the ongoing objective is to “grow more competitive.” He said even in the elite WMAC, “We can make some noise.”