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Originally published: 2012-08-01 10:16:37
Last modified: 2012-08-01 10:16:37

2012 Western Highlands Conference preview (part one)

Jamie Shell / (sports@averyjournal.com)

Pads began popping and whistles blowing on high school campuses across the state earlier this week, which means only one thing: High school football season has officially begun!
For the past four seasons, The AJT has provided previews of teams in the Western Highlands 1A/2A Conference, Avery's non-conference foes and additional local high school and college teams.
This 5th rendition is broken into two parts to cover the Western Highlands Conference teams Avery will square off against in 2012.
This week's edition profiles Owen, Hendersonville and Polk County. Next week's edition will include a preview of Madison, Mitchell, Thomas Jefferson and Mountain Heritage. A preview of Avery's non-conference season opener at Mitchell will be printed in the Aug. 16 edition.
Owen Warhorses (conference: 4-3; overall: 4-8)
Owen High School suffered one of its worst seasons in recent memory in 2011, dropping each of its non-conference contests before managing four wins in Western Highlands Conference play. Among the conference wins was a 56-31 win against Avery, as well as a 26-20 upset victory in overtime against Mitchell.
This season's edition of the Warhorses returns six starters both on offense and defense, along with several experienced skill position players, including the senior trio of fullback/linebacker Cole Leighton (308 yards rushing, 49 tackles in 2011), tight end/linebacker Eddy Slye (215 receiving yards with three touchdowns, 76 defensive tackles) and tight end/defensive end Adam Lunsford (86 tackles, 10 quarterback hurries) to anchor the 4-4 defense and Multiple I formation offensive scheme.
Gone from Owen's club from last season are quarterback Carl Patton, linebacker Colton Fox and starting running back Jordan Littlejohn, each of whom factored in the win at Avery last season.
Leading into camp, senior Tate Gardner appears to have the inside track to replace Patton at quarterback, but things can change quickly as fall practice officially began this week.
"If the quarterback position can come around, then a good nucleus can be put around him," head coach Kenny Ford told N.C. Prep Football News this preseason. "We have worked on our speed and quickness in the off season and hope that it can pay off for us."
The Warhorses host Avery on Friday, Sept. 14, in Swannanoa.
Hendersonville Bearcats (conference: 6-1; overall: 10-3)
On an annual basis, perhaps no club in the Western Highlands Conference has shown the consistency of winning football over the past two decades than the Hendersonville Bearcats. Head coach B.J. Laughter leads a club coming off another winning season and conference championship, falling in the second round of the 1A state football playoffs 25-21 against conference rival Mitchell.
The Bearcats return five starters on offense and four starters defensively, and looks to utilize team speed and athleticism to overpower opponents, a tried and true formula the school has effectively implemented season after season.
"We have a very solid passing game and a very powerful, hard-nosed running game," Laughter said in a preseason interview. "We should be strong in the kicking game and our defensive line is a strong point."
HHS welcomes a number of players whose skill sets fit in well with Laughter's I/Gun offensive scheme and 3-5-3 defense. Seniors leading the Bearcats on the field this season include Grant Rivers, two-time high jump state champion on the track and All-Western North Carolina, and All-Western Highlands Conference quarterback/free safety. Rivers completed 100 of 184 passes last season for 1,884 yards with 20 touchdowns. He also ran the football 71 times for 304 yards and a score, breaking the HHS single-season passing yardage mark.
In addition to Rivers, WHC Special Teams Player of the Year and senior wide receiver/running back/defensive back/kick returner Shawn Rogers returns. Rogers caught 49 passes for 933 yards with 10 touchdowns. He gained 715 yards rushing on 68 carries with six more scores. Defensively, Rogers had two interceptions and 46 tackles, while returning four kickoffs for touchdowns and punting for a 39-yard average.
Other seniors that will fill key roles for the Bearcats include senior wide receiver D.J. Wilson, who caught four touchdowns, as well as Desean Jackson, an All-Conference running back/linebacker who recorded 82 tackles, six sacks and three fumble recoveries in 2011. Junior Rhett Hoy, 220-pound state wrestling champion last year, will anchor HHS's offensive and defensive lines.
Hendersonville defeated Avery 48-28 at Dietz Field last season. The Bearcats visit MacDonald Stadium on Friday, Sept. 28.
Polk County Wolverines (conference: 5-2; overall: 9-4)
Polk County won eight of its first 10 games in 2011 before losing its season finale against Hendersonville and falling to Maiden in the second round of the 2A state football playoffs.
The Wolverines return six offensive starters and five defensive starters to a team that often finds itself in the upper tier of the WHC standings. Coach Bruce Ollis says that he likes the mix of players that will run his Hybrid I formation offense and Multiple 50 defensive scheme this fall.
"We have much better leadership," Ollis told http://www.ncpreps.com this preseason. "Our players have a great work ethic and expect to win. Team speed will be better than average."
Senior Alec Philpott will lead the club at quarterback. The five-foot, 11-inch signal-caller was All-WHC in 2011 and passed for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ran for 992 yards, numbers gained despite missing two games due to injury. Fellow senior teammates Floyd Graber and Todd Yoder anchor the offensive line, while a pair of junior wide receivers, Anthony Carson and Reece Schlabach, provide speed on the outside for Philpott to take advantage of to exploit opposing defenses.
Issues that could hinder the Wolverines from reaching great heights in 2012 are depth and injuries.
"Depth will be an issue. We have to stay healthy to contend for a conference title," Ollis added. "We feel like we can be in the mix for a conference championship if we can avoid injuries. Our players have given great effort in the off season and we believe this will pay off for us."

Polk earned a 48-28 road victory at Avery last season, and will host the Vikings on Friday, Oct. 5.
Pick up next week's edition of The AJT for a preview of the remaining Western Highlands Conference clubs.