Beyond the Scoreboard: Some WNC teams off to surprising 2-0 starts

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Photo credit: WLOS Staff

In the words of the immortal Gomer Pyle, Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

Among the 10 WNC schools undefeated after two weeks of high-school football are some usual suspects like Pisgah, Erwin and Hendersonville.

But the list of 2-0 teams also features a few programs that have struggled mightily in recent seasons, but are off to – there’s that word again – surprisingly fast starts.

East Henderson, North Buncombe and McDowell have stumbled through losing seasons in recent years and were a combined 6-27 in 2017.

But this year they are a collective 6-0 and enjoying the fast starts.

“Our kids are having fun and enjoying themselves,” said North Buncombe coach Brandon Allen. “They are finally getting to walk around with their heads a little higher.”

This is Allen’s second stint as head coach of the Black Hawks, and he has seen firsthand the effects of losing football.

The program went 1-10 in his first season in Weaverville in2011 and was 20-80 over the previous nine years.

The last two teams were a combined 1-21, so two wins already signifies a marked improvement.

Going to Cherokee in Week 1 and beating the defending state 1A champions has convinced the Black Hawks that they can compete.

“Our preparation during the offseason was really good, and going through a program and doing the things you are supposed to do prepares you to be ready for a football season,” said Allen.

“Nobody gave us a chance at Cherokee, but this is a tight knit group of kids who have been through a lot together. That’s a tough environment to play in and they are a talented team, but our kids played extremely hard and we executed well.”

Caden Higgins, who missed last season with an injury, is back at quarterback and pacing the offense, while the defense is led by ends Spencer Harris Jackson Ramsey.

At home Friday night, the Black Hawks host another surprising 2-0 team, Smoky Mountain. The Mustangs, who have had just one winning season since 1999, have routed Andrews (41-0) and Swain County (56-6), handing the Maroon Devils their worst loss in 44 years.

“We’re trying to do everything we can as coaches to put our kids in the best position we can, and while we are happy to be 2-0, this is not the end of the road,” said Allen.

“Smoky Mountain is going to be tough, and we are going to have to prepare well and play well to keep this going.”

East Henderson was a solid program under coach Brett Chappell, but when he left for Pisgah after the 2012 season, the Eagles stumbled through a five-year stretch, posting an 8-47 record from 2013-2017.

But second-year coach Justin Heatherly saw some potential in his athletes, and even the loss of starting quarterback Chris Hemphill, who transferred to Asheville School over the summer, didn’t prevent the team from routing Rosman (40-14) and North Henderson (48-0) in the first two games.

Quarterback Garrett Atkinson, the junior varsity starter last season, has thrown for 508 yards and five scores in two games, and Caleb Shipman has been a big-play machine.

“Garett is a competitor and is always looking to get better, and that’s what you want in a quarterback,” said Heatherly.

“Caleb is having a breakout year. After last year (when he led the team with 415 yards receiving and four scores), we told him he had to want the football, to be more aggressive, and he has done that.”

“We spent a lot of time in the weight room in the off season, and that has helped our confidence,” said Heatherly, who was 3-8 last season.

“We also bonded well, and that’s a key to us being 2-0. I knew we had the potential to be good, and I believe our athletes are good enough to compete and win.”

McDowell has been an underachieving football program for a long time, with just one winning season since 2002.

The 4A Titans, WNC’s largest school, were 15-43 the past five seasons, but third-year coach Andy Morgan has 16 starters back off a 2-9 team that was 1-6 in the Northwestern Conference.

Quarterback Adam Randolph, who struggled with injuries last season, has thrown for 520 yards and five touchdowns in wins over R-S Central (22-7) and Avery County (52-27), and is getting plenty of offensive help from receivers Dakota Effler, Andruw Randoph and running back JC Olivo.

With upcoming games against Patton and Mitchell before conference play starts, the Titans have a chance to win more than five games for just the second time in the past 17 seasons.

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