SWANNANOA – Normally the home team enjoys almost all the emotional edge in a season opener.
Owen football coach Kenny Ford knows better in this case.
The Warhorses may the favorite to win this year’s Western Highlands Conference championship with former Citizen-Times All-WNC tailback Jager Gardner (2,583 yards, 31 touchdowns in 2013) in the fold.
But it could require more than talent to be successful Friday against an Enka team playing for a purpose.
Kickoff between the Buncombe County schools is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in the Swannanoa Valley.
Jets coach Jeff Frady said his team will be wearing helmet stickers as a season-long memorial to Christopher Taylor, as well as keeping the sophomore lineman’s jersey on its sideline. Taylor, 15, was involved in a fatal car wreck last month.
“I told (Frady) right after it happened, and I still feel the same way. When something like that happens, it makes you realize that what we do is not nearly as important as you think,” Ford said.
“It made a lot of kids realize some things and grow up. After what happened in their community, Enka’s kids are going to come over here with a reason to play, a lot of reasons to play.”
Ford said the schools were still discussing a possible moment of silence or other tribute to Taylor before kickoff.
Once the whistle blows, an Enka defense with returning seniors Nathan Saunders (7.1 tackles a game) and Austin Davis (4.5) will have to brace for one of Western North Carolina’s most prolific and well-balanced rushing attacks.
Owen not only has Gardner, a senior who is the NCPreps.com NCHSAA 2-A preseason player of the year, but also fellow seniors Zee Johnston (724 yards, seven touchdowns) and Austin Bennett (521 yards, six touchdowns).
The trio of former All-WHC selections get their handoffs from veteran quarterback Sam Drummond (935 yards and nine touchdowns with five interceptions). Two of his most trusted receivers are fellow seniors Taylor Frizsell (19 receptions for 260 yards and a touchdown) and Tate Brown (11 receptions for 286 yards and four touchdowns).
Senior lineman Mason Eades was also a member of the 2013 All-WHC team.
Tucker Lowery (7.3 tackles per game) and Bennett (6.3) return for the Warhorses defense.
“(Owen) is very good, offensively and defensively,” Frady said. “They’ve got a lot of good skill players. Some teams have special players, and it’s all them. But Jager has a good support group, and (Warhorses offensive coordinator Anthony Lee) always does a great job with their offense. And on defense, Kenny has people coming at you from everywhere.”
Frady said his team’s roster grew following the accident, and the Jets hope to two-platoon at some positions with 37 varsity players.
“The kids have really responded well, and they want to do their best,” Frady said. “We’ve done well in our scrimmages, and more kids coming out who have played other sports in the past has been a big plus.”
Enka and Hunter Graham (292 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions) won back-to-back games to conclude a 3-8 season in 2013.
Daniel Candler and Michael Cantrell are juniors who will be counted on heavily at running back, and likewise for seniors Kelly Brendell and Javon Brown as receivers.
Senior Matt Elliott and junior Bryce Shook were on the offensive line last year.
ENKA AT OWEN
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Pick: Owen by 14.
Following is a look at the last five football games between Enka and Owen.
2013: Owen 36, Enka 20.
2012: Enka 23, Owen 17.
2011: Enka 34, Owen 31.
2010: Owen 49, Enka 21.
2009: Owen 35, Enka 7.
MORE ONLINE: Log onto CITIZEN-TIMES.com shortly before kickoff for the start of a live blog from the Enka-Owen football game.