Erwin coach Mike Sexton has said he wants his football team to tackle preseason expectations as if they were an opposing ball carrier.
But there was still a long pause on the other end of the phone line when Sexton learned that the Warriors are officially the preseason favorites in the Mountain Athletic Conference.
MAC coaches made their voices heard in polling conducted for the 22nd annual N.C. Football News Yearbook, published by NCPreps.com.
Franklin (Western North Carolina 2-A/3-A), Hendersonville (Western Highlands 1-A/2-A) and Murphy (Smoky Mountain 1-A) are the other teams expected to win their leagues, according to WNC coaches.
“While it’s nice to see our kids recognized in this way, a poll is a poll,” Sexton said.
“You don’t play games on paper, and our kids know that. We realize that it is what it is.”
Erwin is coming off its first conference championship season since 2001 in the MAC’s 3-A division and returns 11 starters (six offense, five defense) as well as three of the area’s top playmakers.
Quarterback Austin Brown was voted the MAC preseason player of the year by coaches.
Brown is a rising senior at 5-foot-11, 185-pounds who passed for an area-best 2,819 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2012.
He will be a three-year starter this fall and was selected to the 2012 Citizen-Times All-WNC team as were his top receiver and rusher — rising seniors Jonathan Allen (98 receptions for 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Kelman Simpson (1,304 yards, 18 touchdowns).
A fourth rising senior, Tristan Jones, joined them on the 2012 All-MAC team as a lineman.
Franklin returns 10 offensive starters, and they will all be trying to facilitate things for rising senior Marquel Manning.
Manning (2,364 yards, 33 touchdowns) led WNC in rushing a year ago when he set a host of single-season school records. He has been voted the WNCAC’s preseason player of the year by its coaches.
Fullback/linebacker Jeremiah Young led Franklin in tackles (83) as a sophomore.
“We’re very excited about the team that is returning, but our expectations and preparation don’t change based on preseason polls,” Panthers coach Josh Brooks said.
“We put pressure on ourselves to do the best we can every year. Our goal is never any different. We’re going to play some good football teams, week to week in this conference, and it’s going to be a test.”
Depth will be a big concern for Hendersonville and Murphy.
Even though the Bearcats are moving from 1-A to 2-A in all sports this school year, coach B.J. Laughter said he expects his roster to include only about 25 varsity football players. So extra conditioning in the summer is a must.
Nevertheless, coaches have still picked Hendersonville to win its third consecutive WHC championship.
Key returnees for the Bearcats include a trio of former all-conference players who are rising seniors — linebacker Keisler Steele, wide receiver/defensive back Raymond Reid and defensive back Cavon Scott.
Owen rising junior Jager Gardner has been named the WHC preseason player of the year by the 1-A/2-A league’s coaches. He rushed for 1,552 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012.
Legendary Murphy coach David Gentry has won an area-record 333 career games and led the Bulldogs to an unprecedented three consecutive regional championships in NCHSAA 1-A play.
Murphy returns a preseason NCPreps.com all-state selection in junior tight end/linebacker Bradley Puccio and a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — rising junior Gage Cox and rising senior Kenton Braswell.
“Our kids are working hard, and I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot this summer,” Gentry said.
“But numbers-wise, we’re just not very good. Injuries could kill us.”
Swain County rising senior quarterback Raymius Smith has been voted the SMC’s preseason player of the year.
Smith passed for 2,771 yards and 41 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 2012. That included a state championship game record 426 yards in the NCHSAA 1-AA title game against Southwest Onslow (a 44-34 loss by the Maroon Devils).
Murphy and Swain County are scheduled to play Nov. 8 in Bryson City.
Practice for statewide NCHSAA teams begins Aug. 1, and the first week of the regular season is scheduled for Aug. 23.