LEDGER – Mitchell athletic director Jamie Bell figures he has permanent seating for about 4,000 football fans.
Countless more can sit on the grassy banks that overlook the Mountaineers’ home field.
How many people can squeeze onto campus Friday to watch a couple Toe River Valley rivals throw down?
If the weather will cooperate, we just might find out.
Mitchell (8-0, 3-0) has matched its best start in school history and has never played Mountain Heritage (7-1, 2-1) this late in a season when both had records this good.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Traffic was backed up so far in 2015 that some fans were unable to get into a game won by Mountain Heritage (35-22 in Burnsville). The Mitchell County Transportation Authority is offering free shuttle service from satellite parking lots before and after Friday’s rematch. Those lots can be accessed at the Mitchell County Board of Education, Mitchell County Senior Citizen Center, Mitchell County Health Department, Ledger Baptist Church and Bear Creek Baptist Church.
“I’d assume it’s going to be something similar to last year,” said Cougars coach Joey Robinson said.
“And around here, I don’t know if you can get much bigger than that. It’s a lot of fun for both communities when you have an environment like that. That’s what high school sports are all about.”
Mitchell leads the all-time series with Mountain Heritage by a count of 29-16 and was also 8-0 last year before losing this game. This must be noted if the turnout is smaller than expected. Rain is in the forecast for Friday, which prompted nearby Avery County to move up its home game against Madison to Thursday.
Seventeen juniors are the heart and soul of a Mountaineers team and the head of that class is Ben Young (1,316 passing yards, 603 rushing yards and 24 combined touchdowns).
“You into a game like this very cautious,” Mitchell coach Travise Pitman said.
“(Mountain Heritage) is a tremendous team and they’ve had an extra week to prepare coming off their bye week. That gives them a head-start. We can’t dig ourselves a hole and expect to climb out like we did last year. The one thing I’m stressing all week is I want our kids to enjoy the environment. I’m not sure if the pressure has built up with this group like it did last year. They’re a different group of kids. They’re just relentless and they look forward to each new game, each new challengge.”
Young has completed 70 of his 112 attempts for 1,316 yards and 14 touchdowns with three interceptions to go along with 90 carries for 603 yards and 10 touchdowns. Young leads the Mountaineers in passing and rushing with ground support from Ben Robinson (587 yards, six touchdowns), Landon Miller (297 yards, seven touchdowns) and Noah Pitman (259 yards, three touchdowns).
Brody Smith (30 receptions for 714 yards and eight touchdowns) also competed an 11-yard touchdown throw on a reverse in last Friday’s 35-22 win at Hendersonville. Alex McKinney (16 receptions for 234 yards and five touchdowns) and Pitman (13 receptions for 176 yards and one touchdown) are other trusty hands.
Robinson has stockpiled a team-high 60 tackles for the defense, followed by Jacob Yelton (53), Trevor Self (50), McKinney (46) and Miller (43).
At worst, Friday’s winner will probably take home a piece of the Western Highlands Conference championship. There was a three-way tie for first place last year, and Mitchell and Mountain Heritage both already played two big threats in Hendersonville (6-3, 3-1) and Polk County (4-5, 2-2).
In terms of preparation, give the edge to the Cougars, who like Pitman said, haven’t played since a 44-0 win at Owen on Oct. 7. Their first shutout of the season can be attributed to tacklers such as Adam Shuford (15.8 a game), Corey Presnell (11.4), Dathan Robinson (10.4), Seth Randolph (10.4), Kane McCandless (9.3) and Dawson Branton (8.1).
“We needed the bye week, we’ve been beat up for about three weeks now,” Robinson said.
“Not just injuries, but key injuries. So it’s been nice to heal up.”
Robinson’s son, junior Trey Robinson (993 rushing yards, 929 passing yards and 25 combined touchdowns), is once again the top playmaker for the Cougars when they have the football. He should go over 1,000 yards in two offensive categories on Friday, something that senior Junior Denton (1,003 yards, nine touchdowns) has already accomplished with his rushing.
Justin Keener (317 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Cole Burleson (307 receiving yards, 194 rushing yards and 10 combined touchdowns) are two other standouts.
“I think they’re better than last year,” Robinson said of Mitchell.
“(Pitman) and his staff have really done a good job of adjusting. They’re extremely well-coached and they have weapons everywhere on offense who can hurt you. Defensively, they’re very solid.”
MOUNTAIN HERITAGE AT MITCHELL
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Pick: Mitchell by 1.
Following is a look at the last five football games between Mitchell and Mountain Heritage. The Mountaineers lead the all-time series, 29-16.
2015: Mountain Heritage 41, Mitchell 27.
2014: Mitchell 26, Mountain Heritage 22.
2013: Mountain Heritage 30, Mitchell 0.
2012: Mountain Heritage 28, Mitchell 6.
2011: Mitchell 31, Mountain Heritage 28.
COMING FRIDAY: The Citizen-Times will provide a live blog from the Mitchell-Mountain Heritage football game. Updates should begin shortly before kickoff at CITIZEN-TIMES.com/hshuddle. Score updates from other Western North Carolina games will be available at CITIZEN-TIMES.com.