Unless noted, all kickoffs at 7:30 p.m.
HENDERSONVILLE at ASHEVILLE
Last year: Asheville beat Hendersonville, 28-14.
Notes: Coming into his head-coaching debut, Hendersonville’s Eric Gash has cause for concern. A couple actually. The Bearcats have been ravaged by injuries at quarterback – incumbent starter Cole Cleary (finger) and backup Michael Schmidt (concussion) are both doubtful for this game. Former All-Western Highlands Conference safety/wide receiver Bradley Schmidt (104 tackles, three interceptions in 2013) is out six to eight weeks with a fractured hip. And then there is Asheville High itself. The Cougars and preseason Mountain Athletic Conference player of the year Cameron Ray (1,029 yards, 18 touchdowns) are the favorite in their 3-A/4-A league and ranked in the top-10 of just about every 3-A state poll. Ray has been converted to a slot receiver, which means that Tevin Salters (1,203 yards and 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions) will mainly be handing off to former All-WNC running back/Reynolds transfer Jave Jones as well as Reggie Battle. Asheville junior Peter Leota received an ACC scholarship offer (Boston College) last week and will be matched up against a Bearcats defense that includes Adam Rice (115 tackles, two sacks).
Pick: Asheville by 17.
EAST RUTHERFORD at ERWIN
Last year: Erwin beat East Rutherford, 47-28.
Notes: Erwin senior Mitchell Chancey (80 tackles) and the Warriors have established themselves as one of Buncombe County’s preeminent football programs. Now comes the difficult second act – staying there. Erwin has won 51 games in six years under coach Mike Sexton, the Buncombe County school’s best stretch ever in that amount of time. Senior wide receiver/defensive back Chavis Williams (43 receptions for 582 yards and six touchdowns) is the only returning All-MAC selection for the team. His presence should help smooth the transition of Brendan McAnulty taking over at quarterback. Junior Colby Maltry is expected to carry the load rushing-wise. East Rutherford was picked to finish fifth in the South Mountain Athletic 2-A/3-A preseason coaches poll and is coming off three consecutive losing seasons, including a 4-7 mark last fall.
Pick: Erwin by 7.
ENKA at OWEN
Last year: Owen beat Enka, 36-20.
Notes: Sophisticated offense surely goes out the window with a running back like Owen senior Jager Gardner? Longtime Warhorses coach Kenny Ford is promising something more than Gardner left, Gardner right and Gardner up the middle. But the reigning Western Highlands Conference player of the year has been tabbed the NCPreps.com 2-A state player of the year. Gardner ran for a single-season school record 2,583 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2013. He has help in Owen’s backfield from 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). Senior lineman Mason Eades was also a member of the 2013 All-WHC team. 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. Seniors Nathan Saunders (7.1 tackles per game) and Austin Davis (4.5) are the returning statistical leaders for the defense.
Pick: Owen by 14.
NORTH BUNCOMBE at PISGAH
Last year: Pisgah beat North Buncombe, 44-0.
Notes: Every year and every team is unique.But recent history in the North Buncombe-Pisgah series does not paint a pretty picture for the Black Hawks, who’ve been outscored 169-0 in the last four meetings. Tuscola transfer Bryce Myers (1,920 yards, 22 touchdowns) is a new addition who could help North Buncombe revise that history. The senior is the top returning rusher in WNC and broke a 96-yard touchdown run in last year’s Pisgah-Tuscola game. Black Hawks coach Curtis Cagle is a former Black Bears assistant and also has a former 1,000-yard passer, Chase Parker (1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions) and All-MAC defensive back/wide receiver, Trenton Bullman (66 tackles), in his arsenal. Pisgah only has four starters back on both sides of the ball, but second-year coach Brett Chappell is encouraged by what he’s seen in the preseason. Former All-WNC Athletic Conference receiver Trevor Johnson (40 receptions for 430 yards and five touchdowns) has been moved to running back, a position vacated by current Black Bears quarterback Lucas Hall.
Pick: Pisgah by 10.
WEST FORSYTH at REYNOLDS
Last year: West Forsyth beat Reynolds, 28-0.
Notes: For better or worse, scrimmages do not count. But former All-MAC linebacker Jared Green (52 tackles, eight for a loss) and the rest of the Reynolds defense blanked always-athletic Burns, 14-0, in their final dress rehearsal last Friday. That bodes well for a unit that struggled in the early portions of last season. A.J. Logan (881 yards, 13 touchdowns) is the team’s top returning rusher and was expected to split carries with Division I prospect Rico Dowdle, who is also a junior. But Dowdle will sit out Friday’s game for disciplinary reasons. Senior C.J. Allen (46 receptions for 675 yards and six touchdowns) is the area’s most prolific receiver back from 2013. West Forsyth returns a dozen starters from last year’s 12-2 team that reached the NCHSAA 4-AA quarterfinals. Titans defensive lineman Jalen Dalton holds more than 20 major Division I scholarship offers and was a preseason NCPreps.com 4-A all-state selection. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior said recently he favors Miami, North Carolina or Virginia Tech.
Pick: Reynolds by 1.
ROBERSON at NORTH HENDERSON
Last year: Roberson beat North Henderson, 22-20.
Notes: No one at North Henderson was deterred by last year’s game of musical chairs at quarterback – juniors Trevor Craft (918 yards and nine touchdowns with eight interceptions) and Ashton Woodring (828 yards and six touchdowns with eight interceptions) were two of three players to start at the position due to injuries. And each 11th grader will get a chance to run the offense this fall, according to Knights coach J.D. Dinwiddie. Whether it’s Craft or Woodring, one of their best receiving outlets is senior Dalton Whitaker (43 receptions for 582 yards and six touchdowns). Roberson sophomore Seth Griswold made more tackles (132) in 2013 than any returning player in WNC. Senior Keith Jenkerson (111 tackles) is also back in the mix for the Rams’ D. Roberson has won 13 of its last 15 season openers, but this will be the first for new coach Chris Deal.
Pick: Roberson by 7.
R-S CENTRAL at MCDOWELL
Last year: McDowell beat R-S Central, 8-7.
Notes: Has the largest high school in WNC finally caught the high school football bug? Approximately 90 McDowell players (50 varsity, 40 junior varsity) showed up for the first day of practice, a turnout which was as good or better than any in Titans history. Junior quarterback Casey Ray (1,122 yards and nine touchdowns with 11 interceptions) became McDowell’s first 10th grader to pass for 1,000 or more yards last fall. His receiving corps include senior Dallas Myers (33 receptions for 444 yards and five touchdowns), junior Ethan McMahan (14 receptions for 186 yards) and senior D.J. Martin (12 receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns). R-S Central returns a dozen starters, including a former 1,000-yard rusher in senior Matt Atchley. The Hilltoppers have been picked to finish sixth in the South Mountain Conference.
Pick: McDowell by 3.
BREVARD at ROSMAN
Last year: Rosman beat Brevard, 40-27.
Notes: Here is the tradeoff in Transylvania County. Brevard has the turf, but not the bragging rights. Rosman and Tanner Green (869 yards, 10 touchdowns) beat their county rival for the first time in school history last season. Rosman still plays on natural grass inside Silversteen Stadium and returns nine returning starters on both sides of the ball, including Green and quarterback Josh Rice (533 rushing yards, 207 passing yards and 10 combined touchdowns). Brevard recently became the 14th WNC high school to install an artificial turf field, but will have to wait until next week’s home opener versus Owen to break it in. The 2013 Blue Devils were easily one of WNC’s most-improved teams under then-rookie coach Jason Lippard, going 6-6 a year after the only winless season in school history (0-11 in 2012).Senior linebacker Nick Siniard is a former All-WNC Athletic Conference selection.
Pick: Rosman by 7.
EAST HENDERSON at SWAIN COUNTY
Last year: Swain County beat East Henderson, 14-0.
Notes: Spencer McCoy looks the part as he prepares to carry a heavier load for Swain County in more ways than one. McCoy is coming off a 1,588-yard, 26-touchdown season in 2013. The two-time defending NCHSAA 1-A wrestling champion at 195 pounds now weighs in at about 215. And McCoy’s move from fullback to tailback means that fellow senior Taylor Oros is taking over his old position. Oros led Swain County in tackles (133) before a late-season injury in 2013. Senior Kobe Toineeta (45 receptions for 742 yards and six touchdowns) and junior Jordan Cody (35 receptions for 656 yards and 12 touchdowns) were All-Smoky Mountain Conference receivers a year ago. East Henderson suffered through its first winless season (0-11) since 1970 last fall, but help is on the way. The Eagles won the 2013 WNCAC junior-varsity championship.
Pick: Swain County by 10.
SMOKY MOUNTAIN at ANDREWS
Last year: Smoky Mountain beat Andrews, 37-6.
Notes: Three-year starting quarterbacks are not commonplace by any stretch. But two of them will be on the field Friday when Smoky Mountain (Zeb Speir) and Andrews (Jacob Moore) meet in Cherokee County. Both signal-callers are seniors. Speir is the top returning passer in WNC with 1,945 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 2013, while Moore threw for 1,246 yards and 12 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. Bristol Brockwell, Taylor Parker and Tyler Rose should be three of the top skill position players around Moore. Andrews has everyone back on its defensive line with the exception of one spot, and prolific linebackers in Jacob Whitaker (88 tackles) and Dillard Ward (74).
Pick: Smoky Mountain by 14.
CHEROKEE at TUSCOLA
Last year: Tuscola beat Cherokee, 56-0.
Notes: Thousands of local residents are heading back to high school this week. Tuscola coach Tommy Pursley and Cherokee coach Kent Briggs are just two of them. Pursley stepped down as a Brevard College assistant to take over in Waynesville last month. He has won 226 games in a 35-year and inherits a Mountaineers roster that should draw its strength from senior linebackers Jon Martinez (7.6 tackles a game) and Houston McCracken (6.2). Each is a three-year starter. Briggs had been an assistant at Smoky Mountain since he was fired as Western Carolina University’s coach in 2007 after six seasons and a 22-42 record. Brigg’s latest undertaking might be an even bigger challenge – Cherokee is a combined 15-42 the past five seasons under three different coaches despite relocating to the regal $10 million Kinsland Stadium. Leading tacklers slated to be back for the Braves are Kennan Panther (129), Logan Teesateskie (90), Jaron Bradley (69) and Matt Lee (62).
Pick: Tuscola by 14.
WEST HENDERSON at MADISON
Last year: Madison beat West Henderson, 33-21.
Notes: Everyone draws their own motivation from preseason polls. For Madison and senior Dylan Hilemon (112 tackles, seven for loss), it’s pretty clear-cut after being picked to finish last in the WHC by the league’s coaches. Numbers-wise, Madison hasn’t lost that many starters (seven) from last year’s 6-6 team. But senior Daniel Nash (132 tackles in 2013) has been hampered by a calf injury in the preseason, and there is still some uncertainty at quarterback. For now, Gosnell said the team will give both Austin Payne and Colby Edwards a chance to run the offense. Payne passed for 429 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore. Madison was once one of the most downtrodden programs in WNC, but has won 19 games in the last two years. Other key defenders back in the fold are Mason Edwards (52 tackles), Travis Hollifield (40) and Jacob Patterson (33). West Henderson and former All-WNC Athletic Conference linebacker/running back Alex Ball are bidding for their first winning season since 2006. N.C. Central baseball recruit Dustie Fender is also a back in the Falcons’ Wing-T offense, while William Crouch (530 yards and five touchdowns with nine interceptions) returns at quarterback.
Pick: West Henderson by 3.
CLOUDLAND (Tenn.) at AVERY COUNTY
Last year: Cloudland beat Avery County, 12-6.
Notes: Seeing is believing when a ball comes off Avery County senior Tre Jackson’s foot and rolls to a stop 43.8 yards later. That was the average punt distance for the 2013 WHC special teams player of the year. Jackson is also the Vikings’ kicker and quarterback. Fellow senior and All-WHC pick Austin Phillips averaged 13.2 tackles per game for the Vikings defense.Veteran coach Darrell Brewer is on the North Carolina staff for this year’s Shrine Bowl.Brewer has been at Avery County since 2004 and won 64 games during that time. Cloudland is coming off a 9-2 season.
Pick: Avery County by 3.
MOUNTAIN HERITAGE at PATTON
Last year: Patton beat Mountain Heritage, 41-34.
Notes: One Robinson exits, another enters? Mountain Heritage freshman Trey Robinson could be the incoming starter at quarterback for a football team coached by his father, Cougars coach Joey Robinson. Older brother, Trevor, amassed 2,802 combined yards of offense with 34 touchdowns as a senior in 2013. Trey Robinson has been sharing reps with junior Bryson Cooper in the preseason. Mountain Heritage will be one of the youngest teams in the Western Highlands Conference with just 10 seniors, including running backs Dalton Cannon (399 yards, two touchdowns) and Joey Brown.
Pick: Mountain Heritage by 1.
WEST WILKES at MITCHELL
Last year: West Wilkes beat Mitchell, 26-15.
Notes: Mitchell junior Dalton Beaver re-defines the word “workhorse.” But with the WHC program increasing its overall participation numbers dramatically (35 varsity players) under first-year coach Travise Pitman, the Mountaineers are hoping to keep their workhorse fresh for the latter stages of games. Beaver, who is a junior, has led Mitchell in tackles each of the past two seasons and earned All-WHC honors twice as a result. He made 112 stops in 2013. Beaver also rushed for 603 yards and five touchdowns last year. Senior Trevan Riddle (88 tackles) was second behind Beaver. Pitman was hoping to start Dray Phillips at quarterback, but the junior’s elbow injury has opened the door for either freshman Ben Young or junior Zach Laws. Tre Carson (34 receptions for 460 yards and four touchdowns) led last year’s team in receiving yardage as a sophomore. Senior Oscar Cruz (368 rushing yards, 232 receiving yards and seven combined touchdowns) is a multi-dimensional threat.
Pick: Mitchell by 1.
POLK COUNTY at SHELBY
Last year: Shelby beat Polk County, 38-21.
Notes: First-year Polk County coach Jamie Thompson’s initiation may not be pleasant. Defending NCHSAA 2-A champion Shelby returns nine starters from its 2013 team, including seniors R.J. George (3,243 yards and 32 touchdowns with 16 interceptions) and Garrion Addison (114 tackles, 28 for a loss). George is the South Mountain Conference’s preseason player of the year. The Wolverines hope to counter with a pair of former All-WHC selections – senior lineman D.J. Twitty and senior fullback/linebacker Jordan Smith. Polk County strung together 11 consecutive winning seasons with five conference titles under former coach Bruce Ollis, who is now at T.L. Hanna (S.C.).
Pick: Shelby by 14.
TOWNS COUNTY (Ga.) at HAYESVILLE
Last year: Hayesville beat Towns County, 20-0.
Notes: Has the corner truly been turned at Hayesville? Last fall, Yellow Jackets like junior Jacob Matheson (69 tackles) and senior Adam Crisp (60) helped construct the Clay County school’s best football season (6-8) in six years. Tyler Leek (36 receptions for 430 yards and three touchdowns) is the team’s top returning receiver, but is also listed as a quarterback on this year’s roster. Former Cherokee/Franklin coach Mitch Myers is now in charge at Hayesville, having ended a 17-year sabbatical from the profession. His former players include ex-NFL running back Shawn Bryson. Bryson was inducted into the Franklin hall of fame in 2012.
Pick: Hayesville by 7.
DARLINGTON (Ga.) at MURPHY
Last year: Darlington beat Murphy, 50-6.
Notes: Call it the cause and effect of winning state championships. WNC’s all-time winningest coach, Murphy’s David Gentry (346 career victories), believes that success in December doesn’t come without a little adversity in August.And the defending NCHSAA 1-A champion Bulldogs have again bitten off a big challenge in their opener, but hope the rematch is much more competitive than 2013. Dalton Kent (1,795 yards and 19 touchdowns and three interceptions) is now a seasoned veteran at quarterback and also factor in the return of All-WNC tight end Bradley Puccio (25 receptions for 503 yards and five touchdowns) as well as 1,000-yard rushers Gaige Cox (1,687 yards, 22 touchdowns) and Deion Johnson (1,132 yards, 12 touchdowns).
Pick: Murphy by 1.
ROBBINSVILLE at RABUN GAP (Ga.), 4:30 p.m.
Last year: Robbinsville beat Rabun Gap, 60-26.
Notes: Win or lose, entertainment value should not be lacking with this Robbinsville team. The Black Knights averaged 40.8 points a game in 2013. And it’s safe to trust predictions for more yardage and touchdowns with the return of two All-SMC seniors who ran for more than 1,000 yards last fall – Cruz Galaviz (1,635 yards, 24 touchdowns) and Skyler Matheson (1,109 yards, 16 touchdowns).Matheson is also his team’s top returning tackler (137), followed by Lane Millsaps (113), Galaviz (111) and Creed Lovin (102).Rabun Gap is led by former Asheville School coach Dale Earnhardt who resigned in 2007 after compiling a 33-37 record.His son, Dallas, is the Eagles’ sophomore quarterback.
Pick: Robbinsville by 7.