Technically, Friday night’s Asheville High at Reynolds football game is for first place in the Western Mountain Athletic 3-A Conference.
But in all likelihood – as this Buncombe County showdown so often is – the rivalry battle is for the regular-season title, a crown both programs is accustomed to wearing.
The Cougars (5-3, 5-0) and the Rockets (6-1, 4-0) have dominated the leagues they play in as long as there has been a version of the Mountain Athletic Conference.
Since the MAC was formed in 1985, and in the various combinations due to the every four year realignment of the schools by the N.C. High School Athletic Association, Asheville High and Reynolds have owned the football championships, combining to win 28 titles in 32 years.
The Cougars have won outright or shared 16 MAC titles over those 32 years, including 10 seasons in which they finished league play undefeated.
Reynolds is right behind, with 14 MAC championships, nine of which were undefeated in league play.
From 2001-2008, when the Rockets were in the Northwestern 4-A, they won seven more conference titles, six times finishing without a loss against league foes.
Asheville and Reynolds have shared the MAC crown twice, in 1994 and ’99, when both went to the state title game (the Rockets won the 4-A title, the Cougars lost in the 3-A championship).
“The first thing you think about (Asheville vs. Reynolds) is there’s a good chance a championship is going to be decided,” said coach Shane Laws, who has his team tanked No. 1 in the WLOS WNC Football Top 10 Poll.
“When these two teams play, that’s usually what it’s for. There is a ton of tradition in WNC football for these two programs.”
“Asheville-Reynolds is a lot of fun,” said Asheville coach David Burdette. “It’s exciting, big rivalry, lot of memorable games. Both teams are undefeated (in conference play) and there’s going to be a big crowd. Should be a great atmosphere, and we’re looking forward to it.”
More recently, the two teams’ domination has been more complete. Not since Roberson won the title outright in 2004 and Tuscola shared the crown with the Cougars in 2008 has anyone but these two powers won the MAC.
Reynolds rejoined the MAC in 2007. Either Asheville or Reynolds has won the last 12 MAC championships, and this year the most recent version of the MAC – the WMA – will almost assuredly keep that streak alive.
Friday night’s winner will hold the edge for the regular-season title and would have to pretty much lose the rest of its conference games to not claim the crown.
The Cougars lead the all-time series 20-16, and have won six of the last 10 meetings.
Reynolds has had the upper hand recently by decisive margins, winning 54-21 in 2015 and 34-16 last season.
Those two victories by the Rockets are part of an incredible run of domination that now stretches into its fourth season.
Since a 27-14 loss to Asheville midway through the 2014 season, Reynolds has won 29 straight games against WNC opponents, and 22 in a row against conference teams.
The actual regular-season league winning streak is 20 in a row, since two of those 22 straight vs. conference schools were playoff wins vs. Erwin 2014 and ’16.
Amazingly, neither streak is a conference record.
The Reynolds teams from 1985-89 won 33 straight against WNC schools and 27 in a row in league play before a 13-12 win by North Buncombe in 1990.
This year’s squad has bounced back from an early loss at 2-A power Shelby to win five straight.
The Cougars have also won five straight, in a much different manner.
After a 0-3 start in a challenging non-conference slate of games, second-year head coach David Burdette switched defenses from a four-front alignment to what he was more comfortable with, a 3-4.
Since then the Cougars have soared to the top of the WMA by outscoring its conference foes 180-65.
Offensively, the Rockets are getting great play from quarterback Alex Flinn, who has thrown for 1,692 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 77 percent of his passes.
Multipurpose threat Nathan St. Onge has 941 yards of offense and 16 touchdowns by throwing, running and catching the ball.
The Reynolds’ defense is led by middle linebacker Frank Torres (49 tackles), end Eli Hembree (43) and cornerback Coleman Minter (41).
The Cougars are paced offensively by ever-improving sophomore quarterback Three Hillier (1,585 yards, 12 TDs) and running back Corey Clement (773 yards rushing).
Defensively, middle linebackers Taquandre Bates and Keith Mosely are the top tacklers while ends Andrew Leota (6 sacks) and Marvin Pearson (5) are having a battle to see who can get to the quarterback the most.
“Asheville is really playing well,” said Laws. “They got off to a slow start and were playing a lot of young guys, but they got it going in the right direction and are on a roll right now.”
“We have to control the line of scrimmage on offense and put some pressure on their quarterback on defense,” said Burdette.
“(Flinn) may be the most accurate passer I’ve ever seen, and we can’t just let him sit back there with all day to throw.”