WEAVERVILLE – A harvest moon on Friday night delivered shadows on farms in the mountains just west of Interstate 26.
The 2016 Mitchell football squad took a large step out of the shadow that lingered over it for the first four weeks of the season in a 49-17 win at North Buncombe.
The shadow worth illuminating, that the 2015 team reached the Class 1-AA state championship game, is one that will be remembered for generations in Ledger.
But the success also set a new standard for the Mountaineers, one that the new team is attempting to match, or even surpass. Coach Travise Pitman noticed something Friday that he hadn’t seen this season. Sure there were improvements in executing, an advance in the passing game and a typical stout defense. What the harvest moon and the lights showed Friday couldn’t be measured in the final box score. It showed on the faces of his 20 new players, those who remember the slogan of 2015 and preach the slogan for 2016.
“I thought we had fun tonight, because they didn’t feel like any pressure was on them,” Pitman said. “They went out there relaxed and played the game instead of thinking, ‘We have to win.’
“Any group follows up a team that just went to the state championship is going to feel that they have to do it also.”
Mitchell is 5-0, perfect so far this year. Its defense had been nearly perfect for 17 straight quarters (only allowing one touchdown) until North Buncombe’s Nick Lisenbee scored from 5 yards out in the second quarter on Friday. Pressure lifted in that moment too. They didn’t have to keep the streak going.
“We got down a little bit,” junior Ben Robinson said. “Coaches told us that eventually something will go bad and we have to respond.”
North Buncombe rode the legs of Lisenbee, who rushed 23 times for 151 yards and a touchdown, while teammate Skylar Jutrus carried 14 times for 71 yards and a score.
“We ran it pretty well with those two guys running hard,” coach Curtis Cagle said. “Defensively, we were so depleted with five out and four just coming back, that we had a hard time rotating our guys in.”
The Mountaineers took other steps out of the shadow, and they did it together, in-step (literally) with one another.
“The fun is that you understand that you’re competing and you’re dominating and when you’re dominating is when you’re having fun,” Pitman said. “I tell my linemen, when we’re double-teaming a guy and pancaking him, and we’re rolling for 8 or 10 yards, that’s when it’s fun. I saw that quite a few times tonight.”
The Mountaineers had 10 of their 34 rushes cover at least 8 yards. None of their rushes — except for taking a knee in the victory formation — were for a loss.
Landon Miller gained 105 yards on 11 carries and scored two touchdowns. Robinson gained 104 yards on nine carries and scored twice with a long run of 33 yards. Noah Pitman and Ben Young each added 16 yards on four carries. Pitman scored a rushing touchdown and Young tossed two touchdown passes.
“This is a big step forward,” Robinson said. “Our O-line stayed on blocks, backs and receivers were fighting for every yard.”
They followed the mantra of 2016: “Rise Up!”
“This is a new team,” Pitman said. “They have to create their own identity and I tell them that week in and week out. They are their own team.”
Evidence abounded against the Black Hawks (0-4). Young completed 12 of 15 passes for 192 yards. In the third quarter, he evaded the pressure and hit Tyler McKinney for a 26-yard gain.
“In the first four games, Ben was tucking and running the ball,” the Mountaineers’ coach said. “We work that drill over and over, and it came alive tonight. Now he knows he can make plays when things break down.”