Wind howling through Asheville High Memorial Stadium on Monday was forceful enough to topple a set of metal bleachers and send them rolling. ¶ Could the Cougars have the same effect on the Mountain Athletic Conference this football season? ¶ It remains to be seen. ¶ But on paper, the nine-time defending conference champions are a prohibitive favorite to win the MAC 3-A division. ¶ Eight returning starters (five offense, three defense) include senior wide receiver/defensive back Cameron Ray. Even with a position change — Ray accumulated team-high totals in rushing yards (1,029) and touchdowns (18) in 2013 — he was voted the conference’s preseason player of the year by MAC coaches. ¶ “It’s a really nice (individual) honor, but I’m more worried about the team,” Ray said. ¶ “We’re ready to get on the field and show what we can do. The great thing about this team is we have such a good bond. It’s more like a family than a team.”
Ray is a returning All-MAC selection, as are a pair of juniors — lineman Peter Leota and defensive end Jose Daniels (74.5 tackles, 10 for a loss in 2013). Daniels had eight sacks in 2013, the third-highest single-season total in school history.
Ray said Asheville’s ultimate goal is to be nothing less than a state championship contender after ceding his spot in the backfield to players such as senior Jave Jones and junior Reggie Battle (711 yards, six touchdowns). Jones missed much of his junior season at Reynolds for disciplinary reasons but was a 2012 All-WNC tailback for the Rockets after rushing for 1,541 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Coaches and teammates have taken to simply calling Jones “Red” in reference to his hair color.
Jones will be running behind a wall of blockers that includes senior Holton Brown, a 5-foot-11, 295-pound senior who is the strongest member of the team, longtime coach Danny Wilkins said.
“We know what people are saying about us, but we’re going to stay hungry and work as hard as we can every day,” Brown said.
“I just can’t wait to block for my brothers on this team and make them look good. It’s always been a dream to be part of a state championship line, and if we stay focused, I definitely think we can make a really deep (playoff) run.”
Asheville’s offense should be in good hands with senior Tevin Salters (1,203 yards and 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions) returning for his second full season at quarterback. Along with Ray, two of Salters’ most trustworthy receivers could prove to be players who were injured for much of last year — seniors Alex Paulk and Pasache Robinson.
The team’s biggest question mark on defense is at inside linebacker, but some of the Cougars’ top returning tacklers are Daniels, Austin Horne (43.5), Paulk (36.5) and Neal Hutchens (23.5).
Senior James Ramming connected on 17 extra points and three field goals in 2013.
Asheville’s season opener is Aug. 22 at home against Hendersonville.
2013 record: 10-3, 6-0.
Returning starters: Eight (five offense, three defense).
Returning all-conference players: Three (Senior defensive back/wide receiver Cameron Ray, junior lineman Pete Leota and junior defensive end Jose Daniels).
Did you know? Asheville’s run of nine straight conference football championships is a school record and the longest active streak in Western North Carolina football. … Danny Wilkins is the all-time winningest coach for the Cougars (141 career victories) and has been in charge of the program since the 2000 season. … The only two WNC players currently active in the NFL are Asheville alums – San Diego Chargers cornerback Crezdon Butler (2006) and Houston Texans defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan (2011).