HENDERSONVILLE – Cole Cleary does not consider it a mixed blessing in hindsight. It was just a blessing.
The Hendersonville senior broke a pinkie finger in the preseason when he and junior Michael Schmidt were splitting reps at quarterback.
Out of necessity, the Bearcats (6-2, 2-1) installed Schmidt as their full-time starter, even though Cleary had a phenomenal junior year (1,559 passing yards, 1,130 rushing yards and 26 combined touchdowns).
“Honestly, it was for the best and everything has worked out great,” Cleary said. “Wherever I’m at, I just love playing the game.”
Friday’s 21-0 win at Avery County was a very subdued effort by Cleary’s standards — he had the game’s first touchdown (on a 26-yard run) but only made three catches for 33 yards. Before this week, Cleary (48 receptions for 1,129 yards and 13 touchdowns) ranked as high as No. 2 in national statistics kept by the website MaxPreps.
Cleary is still averaging 161.3 yards per game, which gives him an outside shot at the NCHSAA record for single-season receiving (1,834 by Charlotte Independence’s Mohamed Massaquoi in 2004) if the Bearcats can make a deep postseason run.
Locally, the highest single-season total on record with the NCHSAA belongs to Robbinsville’s Kyle Garland, who amassed 1,699 yards in 2003. Murphy legend Carl Pickens is third (1,536 yards) with a 1987 season that propelled him to the University of Tennessee and then the NFL.
What accentuates Cleary’s numbers even more?
Cleary’s finger and an untimely concussion for Schmidt (1,931 yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions) kept both playmakers out of Hendersonville’s season opener (a 49-14 loss to Asheville High).
“I try not to look at the numbers so much and just stay focused on what I have to do for my team,” Cleary said. “I have so many people to thank, from my line to the other receivers and Michael getting me the ball. No one does it by themselves.”
Indeed, Tykel Landrum (20 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns), Michael Cook (14 receptions for 375 yards and four touchdowns) and Terrold Gary (nine receptions for 81 yards) have kept opponents from devoting all their attention to Cleary.
Cleary is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound prospect for the next level who has run 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He received scholarship offers over the summer from Limestone (S.C.) and Wingate.
But his success and desirability to college programs is no surprise to first-year Bearcats coach Eric Gash.
“What everyone is seeing on Friday night is the work that Cole has put in over the offseason and the summer,” Gash said.
“He’s relentless. He’s the first one in the weight room and gives everything he has on the practice field to make everyone around him better. That’s been the culture of this team. It’s a very team-first kind of group who are very selfless.”