Erwin football players were showering off Thursday when the U.S. Army 7-on-7 tournament was decided on their home field.
Even in defeat, the host Warriors and Mitchell saw more good than bad by reaching the semifinals of the 16-team event.
“We’re not where we need to be yet to compete for a championship in the Mountain Athletic Conference,” Erwin coach Mike Sexton said.
“But our kids competed today and we’ll get there. We’ll get better. We feel pretty good about the kids who are back. Now it’s just a matter of finding some depth.”
Erwin went 5-2 in the tournament. Teams were given three downs instead of four to convert a first down (10 yards) and players were ruled down once they were tagged. No kicks were taken and points were awarded for defensive stops and interceptions.
Defending NCHSAA 2-A champion Shelby beat last year’s 2-AA state champion, East Lincoln, by a 29-27 score in the finals.
Former Citizen-Times All-WNC quarterback Damien Ferguson zinged a couple touchdown passes to Erwin rising senior Chase Austin in a 22-14 semifinal loss to Shelby. The Warriors shut out Swain County, 43-0, in the quarterfinals.
“We’re a little quicker and a little stronger than we have been in the past,” said Ferguson, a 6-foot, 165-pound rising junior who threw for 2,597 yards and 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 2014.
“I’ve been doing a lot of film study with (offensive coordinator Bucky Tarr). Everyone on this team has the same mindset, we want to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Ferguson and Austin are two of seven returning offensive starters off a 9-2 Erwin team that started last season 9-0 for the first time in school history. Rising seniors Rayonte Mills and Trevor Franklin, who split time between linebacker and running back, were also All-MAC players last fall.
Mitchell was one of Western North Carolina’s biggest turnaround stories in coach Travise Pitman’s first season.
The Mountaineers went 8-5, a vast improvement on back-to-back one-win seasons in 2012 and 2013.
Rising sophomore Ben Young (1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns with 13 interceptions) and the rest of his teammates held their own Thursday with a 4-3 record. One of those wins was over Shelby in pool play.
“I looked down at our bracket and the first thing that caught my eye were two defending state champions,” Pitman said.
“I thought, ‘Uh oh.’ But our kids on defense did a great job adjusting. It’s just a 7-on-7, but this was a good chance to see where we’re at. Our quarterback threw the ball well and our receivers did a good job. Overall, I think the kids had a good time and that was the goal today.”
In addition to Young, rising seniors Dalton Beaver (linebacker/running back) and Tre Carson (defensive back/wide receiver) as well as rising junior Alex McKinney (linebacker/tight end) were All-Western Highlands Conference players last fall.
The U.S. Army 7-on-7 tournament is he largest 7-on-7 tournament in WNC and included teams from South Carolina and Tennessee this year.
Aug. 1 is the first official day of practice for statewide teams in the NCHSAA. The first night of regular-season games is Aug. 21.