A new high football season is upon us, and 2017 features a different look for some Western North Carolina teams.
Realignment, which happens every four years with North Carolina High School Athletic Association programs, has created some reshuffling of teams and conferences.
The only 3-A league in the mountains is the Western Mountain Athletic, which moves North Henderson, Tuscola and West Henderson into what used to be the Mountain Athletic, joining holdovers Asheville, Enka, Erwin, North Buncombe, Reynolds and Roberson.
A closer look at each Western Mountain Athletic team with its first game and a key question that will need to be answered.
The schools are listed in order of predicted finish.
Can the Rockets continue their domination of conference opponents?
Going back to the middle of the 2014 season, Reynolds has won 18 straight games against Mountain Athletic Conference opponents, including 16 in a row in regular-season play.
Coach Shane Laws’ squad begins the 2017 season with a host of talented skill position players, making the Rockets the overwhelming favorite to once again roll through their league.
Will the Rams’ resurgence continue under coach Dinwiddie?
After the Rams lost 24 games the previous three seasons, coach J.D. Dinwiddie’s first team in Skyland finished 8-4 in 2016, including a 4-2 mark in the MAC.
With junior quarterback Ty Gossett running a spread offense that averaged nearly 28 points a game, Roberson has 14 starters back, a good indication that winning football is back in South Asheville.
3. Asheville High
Can coach Burdette get the Cougars back to the top of the mountain?
In the first season following coach Danny Wilkins’ retirement, AHS lost six games for the first time in 30 years and failed to post a winning record for the first time since 1995.
Coach David Burdette will feel the pressure to win more in his second season with a team that boasts a strong offensive line led by Northwestern recruit Andrew Leota.
Mountaineers have enough to overcome staggering losses?
A breakthrough 2016 season of 11-2 included a share of the WNC Athletic Conference with a 6-1 mark, but coach Tommy Pursley lost three talented running backs, including Caleb Ferguson (1,944 yards, 38 TDs).
With just seven starters returning, Tuscola fans hope the talent from an undefeated junior-varsity team will be enough to ensure continued success in Waynesville.
New coach, new quarterback, same old success?
Coach Mike Sexton retired last season after rebuilding the Warriors, producing nine straight winning seasons while averaging eight wins a year.
Long-time assistant Rodney Pruett takes over with just nine returning starters, and replacing recording setting quarterback Damien Ferguson and receiver C.J. Thompson will be a challenge.
Friday’s Game: Mitchell at Erwin, 7:30
6. West Henderson
Can Falcons bounce back in new league?
After posting eight- and nine-win seasons the previous two years, a leaky defense that allowed more than 40 points five times doomed the Falcons to a 4-8 finish last year.
Veteran coach Paul Whitaker has 12 starters back to face the rigors of a new conference and will hope to score more with former wide receiver Dalton Cole moving to quarterback.
7. North Henderson
Welcome to the big leagues, kid?
Zach Wilkins’ introduction to being a head coach for the first time is moving up to the Western Mountain Athletic 3-A, a league he knows well as a former assistant at Asheville High under his father Danny Wilkins.
His first year with the Knights begins a quest to turn around a program that was 3-8 last season, the 15th time in the last 16 years to program had a losing record.
Can new league opponents give Jets new life?
The Mountain Athletic Conference was a bumpy ride for the Jets, who won just one league game the past three seasons while posting an overall mark of 4-29 under coach Jeff Frady.
But with new teams like North Henderson and West Henderson joining what is now the Western Mountain Athletic 3-A, Enka fans hope more Ws are in the future.
9. North Buncombe
Second time the charm for coach Allen?
Brandon Allen’s first stint as head coach with the Black Hawks in 2011 was brief (one season) and unsuccessful (1-10).
On his return, he faces the challenge of turning around the fortunes of an 0-11 team led by running back Nick Lisenbee (1,113 yards, 12 TDs last season).