CANDLER – The offense is fast-paced, the defense is relentless and players describe practice as “fun.”
Little wonder then that Smoky Mountain football is off to its best start in nearly a decade under first-year coach Chris Brookshire.
Even after Enka managed to slow senior Matthew Ridley – Western North Carolina’s leading rusher through two games – on Friday night, the Mustangs unveiled another dangerous weapon named Austin Baumgarner and gutted out a 24-7 victory to move to 3-0 for the first time since 2007.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” said linebacker Michael Ashe when asked to explain what’s led to Smoky’s hot start. “It’s a completely different atmosphere. Coach Brookshire is honestly a really kind-hearted guy. He puts everything he’s got into football, and I respect him a bunch. He gives us his all, and I try my best to give him all I got.”
His teammates did as well while facing a tough challenge from the biggest school they’ve seen this season. Class 3-A Enka (0-3) held Ridley to 63 yards – well below his average of 267 – and one touchdown.
When the Mustangs needed someone else to step up, Baumgarner came through with a pair of game-changing touchdowns: first on an 88-yard pass reception less than a minute before halftime and later on a 96-yard interception return just as Enka was threatening to get within three points midway through the fourth quarter.
Brookshire pointed at Friday’s win as proof the early success is the result of a complete team effort.
“I would try to stop No. 19 (Ridley) too if I was playing us,” Brookshire said. “I’d make that our number one priority because we’d not been able to throw the ball downfield until tonight. We gave our quarterback (Cole Hooper) some running lanes, and he completed the ball … and defensively (Ashe) had a big night causing all kinds of havoc, and our inside rush was good. I’m excited about where we’re at.”
Despite incompletions on his first three passes and an interception on his fourth, Hooper bounced back to finish 15 of 29 for 202 yards – including the touchdown to Baumgarner.
Baumgarner had three total receptions for 117 yards.
“We’re all in,” Hooper said. “We were there all this summer. (Brookshire’s) really got us alive this year. Running the spread, we’re able to use our weapons … Practice, you know, usually isn’t fun, but this year every day I want to go to practice. It’s up-tempo, we’ve got music playing, and it’s always fun. I love it.
“We’re 3-0 right now, and that’s great,” Hooper added. “But we haven’t played a game yet where we actually played to our potential.”
Despite the final score, Enka managed to stay within striking distance most of the evening.
Enka’s offense didn’t move the chains through the game’s first 18 minutes, but Holbrook’s 5-yard, first-down run midway through the second quarter launched the Jets on a 17-play, 58-yard drive.
But after driving inside the Mustangs’ 25, Holbrook’s fourth-down pass to the end zone was picked off by Smoky Mountain’s Tristen Kenyon two plays before Baumgarner’s long touchdown catch made the score 17-0 at halftime.
“The pick (Baumgarner’s long interception return) was on me,” Enka coach Jeff Frady said. “We should have run it in the middle of the field, kicked a field goal and made it a seven-point game. I got a little overzealous there toward the end, but our kids played hard. I’m proud of them. (Smoky Mountain’s) kids, as many kids as they lost off last year’s team, it’s fun to watch their kids play. They play very, very hard.”