Unless noted, all kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m.
ASHEVILLE at FRANKLIN
Last year: Asheville beat Franklin, 34-20.
Notes: New era, meet the old reliable. Veteran coordinator David Burdette is Asheville High’s pick to replace the winningest coach in school history (Danny Wilkins retired with 162 career victories). Burdette has the comfort of knowing a former 1,000-yard passer is along for the ride – senior Devon Davidson (1,632 yards and 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions) and the Cougars are transitioning from an I-formation offense to the spread. Makaius Brewer (6.8 tackles per game) and Andrew Leota (5.0) are two other returning starters to watch out for. Leota, who is a junior, received his first scholarship offer from Virginia Tech last month. Franklin’s three-year reign atop the WNC Athletic Conference is the longest active conference-championship streak in mountain football. Coach Josh Brooks was won a school-record 96 games since 2006 and the steadfast Panthers have produced a 2,000-yard rusher each of the past three years. Dillon Daves (238 yards, three touchdowns), Nicholia Lamb (294 yards, two touchdowns), Brock Kleoppel (184 yards, two touchdowns) and David Ramsey are among the backs who will be taking their handoffs from first-year starting quarterback Andrew Moore. Based off of last year, his most dependable option at receiver is Jordan Nugent (19 receptions for 258 yards and four touchdowns). Daves averaged 5.7 tackles a game last fall, while Logan Tallent made 5.4 per night.
Pick: Asheville by 3.
ENKA at OWEN
Last year: Enka beat Owen, 48-47.
Notes: Plan B it is. Last year’s leading rusher for Owen, junior Sidney Gibbs (1,750 yards, 19 touchdowns), went down with a torn ACL during a preseason 7-on-7. Fullback Cyrus Hooper (401 yards, two touchdowns) now has a greater role in the offense after a reorganization. Kendrick Weaver started three games at quarterback last year and the sophomore has some experienced blocking in returning starters Casey Young and Colbyn McIssac. Along with Erwin, the Warhorses were one of two Buncombe County programs to have their artificial turf field redone this summer. Rainy weather delayed work in the Swannanoa Valley so severely that Monday was the first practice for Owen on the new surface. Owen leads this Buncombe series by an all-time count of 29-20-1, and like Enka, is coming off a one-win season. The Jets and the tackling tandem of Zane Turner (6.6 stops per game) and Avery Holbrook (6.4) beat the Warhorses in double overtime last year and then didn’t win again. Holbrook is expected to take over at quarterback. One of his most logical targets is Chase Bennett (27 receptions for 227 yards and one touchdown). Austin Clark, Colby Warren and Donyell Gaines have been rotating as running backs.
Pick: Owen by 1.
DAVIDSON DAY at ERWIN
Last year: The two teams did not play.
Notes: Erwin coach Mike Sexton is under no illusions. His football team may not play a better opponent all year than the one coming to Kerr Stadium on Friday. Davidson Day and Wake Forest recruit Sam Hartman (more than 2,500 passing yards in 2015) are the defending NCISAA Division I champions and coming off a 12-0 season. Patriots lineman Garrett Groulx has committed to James Madison, and there are numerous other players on the private-school team who are under the recruiting microscope. Of course, the Warriors are no slouches either. They’ve had eight consecutive winning seasons under Sexton, the longest such patch of success in school history. Damien Ferguson (2,993 yards and 27 touchdowns with 11 interceptions) is a two-time All-WNC quarterback and the mountains’ top returning passer. Ferguson (5,590 career yards) needs 2,306 more to break the area’s career record held by 2010 Tuscola graduate Tyler Brosius (7,895). Fellow senior C.J. Thompson (72 receptions for 775 yards and 10 touchdowns) caught more balls than any area receiver back from 2015 and Kealin Goode was not far behind with 63 receptions for 595 yards and six touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, Trey Martin (6.3 tackles per game), Thompson (6.0) and Ethan Silver (5.3) should stand out again.
Pick: Davidson Day by 7.
NORTH BUNCOMBE at PISGAH
Last year: Pisgah beat North Buncombe, 21-20.
Notes: Pancakes aren’t just for breakfast any more. Pisgah senior Michael Parrott is a former two-time All-WNC Athletic Conference selection who served up 35 pancake blocks a year ago. No wonder the burly Black Bears fullback accepted a preferred walk-on position from the University of Alabama in February. Trey Morgan (42 receptions for 558 yards and eight touchdowns) is a returning All-WNCAC receiver for Houston Rogers (1,165 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions). Former Enka quarterback Jason Fabio (807 yards and two touchdowns with nine interceptions) is also available if needed, but he will start out at receiver. The name of the game for North Buncombe is getting the ball early and often to former All-WNC and All-Mountain Athletic Conference receiver Blake Mathews (35 receptions for 1,016 yards and 12 touchdowns). Nick Lisenbee (585 yards, six touchdowns) should balance the Black Hawks’ offense with his rushing. North Buncombe coach Curtis Cagle is a 1986 Pisgah graduate. He was an assistant for 15 years in Haywood County before coming to Weaverville in 2012.
Pick: Pisgah by 7.
REYNOLDS at WEST FORSYTH
Last year: Reynolds beat West Forsyth, 31-28.
Notes: No takers, huh? Reynolds coach Shane Laws decided a long time ago that if no one from WNC was willing to schedule the Rockets, he’d take them down the mountain to find the best nonconference competition possible. West Forsyth fits the bill, as does three-time defending state champion Shelby which comes to Dalton Stadium on Aug. 26. For now, the Rockets and Sean Jones (431 yards, two touchdowns) and Reynolds can only worry about the task at hand Friday in Clemmons (a town just west of Winston-Salem). West Forsyth is the preseason favorite in the Central Piedmont Conference and 12th in NCPreps’ preseason rankings for NCHSAA 4-A. Running back Marcus Caldwell has scholarship offers from North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. That’s nothing compared to fellow junior K.J. Henry, a defensive end/tight end with more than two dozen offers from ACC, SEC and Big Ten schools. Jones only got 48 carries for the Rockets last year, which means he averaged exactly 9.0 yards per attempt. The senior has impressed in preseason scrimmages and will be getting his handoffs from first-year starting quarterback Nathan St. Onge. Lineman Jake Setterlind and running back/safety Keyal Talbert were also All-Mountain Athletic Conference players last autumn for the defending MAC 3-A champs. Andrew Wall is an X-factor on special teams, having averaged 35.3 yards per punt in 2015.
Pick: West Forsyth by 3.
R-S CENTRAL at MCDOWELL
Last year: R-S Central beat McDowell, 14-10.
Notes: Workers have repaired the foundation of McDowell’s stadium in the offseason. Funny, that is exactly what first-year coach Andy Morgan has in mind for the Titans, too. Morgan, who began his career as an assistant at the area’s largest high school 18 years ago, has been dealt a pretty fair hand. Thirteen returning starters (seven offense, six defense) are back from a 4-8 team, including two backs who averaged more than five yard per carry — Terrion Camp (782 yards, three touchdowns) and Matthew Moss (702 yards, five touchdowns). Ben Ballew has gotten the early-season nod at quarterback. He was the JV starter as a sophomore and will help the Titans transition from an I-formation offense to the spread. Tyler Banks (26 catches for 382 yards and three touchdowns) and Chase Justice (23 catches for 252 yards and one touchdown) have proven themselves as trusty receiving options. Kaali Kobe (61 tackles), Adam Randolph (49) and Micah Detwiler (40) all made 40 or more tackles last fall. R-S Central returns nine starters on both sides of the ball from a 6-6 team in 2015.
Pick: McDowell by 1.
ROBERSON at NORTH HENDERSON
Last year: North Henderson beat Roberson, 14-7.
Notes: Squint if you want Friday at North Henderson. But the coach on the visiting sideline looks familiar for a reason. J.D. Dinwiddie was 15-30 in four seasons with the Knights and accepted the Roberson job eight months ago. He is counting on the blocking of former All-WNC lineman Dayquan Watkins to deliver the Rams their first winning season since 2012. Cooper Graham puts the “special” in special teams – the senior averaged 38.4 yards per punt and had 35 touchbacks on kickoffs in 2015. He joined Watkins on the All-WNC team. Former Western Carolina University quarterback Justin Clark is Dinwiddie’s replacement as coach at North Henderson. Austin Vanhoy (125 tackles and four interceptions in 2015) is the lone returning all-conference player for the Knights. Along with playing safety, he is expected to get carries at running back. Devon Graham (64 tackles), Cameron Bumgarner (57) and Dakota Vosburg (40) should also provide depth on defense. Clark, who has some first-hand experience on the matter, believes that sophomore Kalin Ensley (220 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions) is a future Division I college quarterback.
Pick: Roberson by 1.
EAST RUTHERFORD at EAST HENDERSON
Last year: East Rutherford beat East Henderson, 27-25.
Notes: Start in the middle and work your way out. East Henderson senior Marshall Frank is not only the most experienced run-stopper for the Eagles at nose guard. The 5-foot-8, 215-pound blocker is their only offensive lineman who started last fall. Quarterbacks Chris Hemphill and Preston Owens have been vying for the starting job and potential rushers are Dijon Gash, Jake Shattuck, Zack Atkinson and Hunter Rogers. East Rutherford has eight starters back from last year’s 5-7 team. After Friday, the Cavaliers will make one more area stop this season – Sept. 2 at Roberson. East Rutherford beat both WNC teams in 2015 by a combined score of 74-38.
Pick: East Henderson by 1.
PATTON at TUSCOLA
Last year: Tuscola beat Patton, 44-6.
Notes: Months of preparation for Tuscola have been more about fine-tuning than fixing things. No team in the WNC Athletic Conference has more returning starters than the Mountaineers (17). Caleb Ferguson (1,196 yards, 19 touchdowns in 2015) has rushed for more than 1,000 yards as both a sophomore and junior. Roman Jenkins (715 yards, eight touchdowns) and Brent Turner (463 yards, three touchdowns) are other threats out of the Mountaineers’ Double Wing offense. The defense will be shored up with the tackling of Taylor Austin (109 stops last year), Joe Napert (89) and Grayson Perkins (77). Third year Tuscola coach Tommy Pursley has 243 career wins to his name and has only endured one losing season since 1993 — Tuscola went 5-7 in 2014. The Mountaineers’ defense will need to be mindful of Patton junior William Brawley, who rushed for 1,061 yards last year.
Pick: Tuscola by 21.
SMOKY MOUNTAIN at ROBBINSVILLE
Last year: Robbinsville beat Smoky Mountain, 22-21.
Notes: Preseason polls are null and void when you’re still playing in December. Two-time defending 1-A Western Regional champion Robbinsville and Colby Hemphill (798 yards, 12 touchdowns) have been picked to finish third in the Smoky Mountain Conference for the second straight year. The Black Knights haven’t lost an SMC game since 2013, and there will be plenty of time to get to that later for Hemphill and three more returning all-conference players – Case Hooper, Issiah Bradley and Logan Odom. Hemphill also averaged 4.6 tackles per game last year, while Elijah Wachacha is the team’s most proven defender after making 9.3 stops per night last fall. Bradley (7.2) is an All-SMC transfer from Swain County. N.C. State baseball recruit Cole Hooper is one of the quarterbacking candidates for first-year Smoky Mountain coach Chris Brookshire. Devon Macke is a soccer-style kicker whose aim is true – the senior made all 28 of his extra points for the Mustangs last season. Smoky Mountain continues to pursue its first winning season in football since 1999.
Pick: Robbinsville by 7.
WEST HENDERSON at MADISON
Last year: West Henderson beat Madison, 34-7.
Notes: Right now things are flowing nicely in Mills River. West Henderson has remained proudly old-school on offense and rumbled to back-to-back winning seasons in the Wing-T. The Falcons hadn’t previously done that since 2001 and 2002. Peyton Frisbee (537 yards, four touchdowns) and Landon Owen (472 yards, one touchdown) are some of the backs who will get fed the ball from Brandon Whitaker (428 yards and two touchdowns with six interceptions). The defense should take its cues from Owen (6.1 tackles per game), Shaq Rospel (5.6), Frisbee (4.7) and Kyler Stocks (4.2). Madison senior Colby Edwards (996 yards and six touchdowns with 13 interceptions) came up just shy of a 1,000-yard season last fall with the help of receivers like Dawson Coates (18 receptions for 425 yards and four touchdowns).
Pick: West Henderson by 14.
BREVARD at ANDREWS
Last year: Andrews beat Brevard, 20-6.
Notes: Leave the bus keys lying around and he might drive that, too. Brevard senior Tanner Pettit is not only the top returning tackler in WNC (14.1 per game), he also rushed for 810 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 to go along with 27 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Coaches have tabbed fellow senior Tanner Ellenberger (1,537 yards and 12 touchdowns with seven interceptions) as the WNC Athletic Conference’s Preseason Player of the Year for a second time. It’s apparent why – Ellenberger has given the Blue Devils 4,008 passing yards the last two seasons. His receiving corps is well-stocked with the return of Nick Cabe (38 receptions for 531 yards and seven touchdowns) and Pettit. First-year Andrews coach James Phillips has brought the veer offense with him from Swain County. One of the more notable position changes is that former quarterback Taylor Parker (1,472 rushing yards, 661 passing yards and 24 combined touchdowns) has moved to running back.
Pick: Andrews by 7.
MURPHY at HENDERSONVILLE
Last year: Murphy beat Hendersonville, 34-28.
Notes: They grow up fast. Murphy quarterback Joey Curry (972 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception) wasn’t even a starter for much of his sophomore season, but is now the Smoky Mountain Conference coaches’ pick for their preseason player of the year. Overall, the Bulldogs also carry the weight, good or bad, as the SMC favorite into Friday’s season opener. The Bulldogs get their guidance from the winningest coach in WNC history — David Gentry has won 366 career games and been at Murphy since 1983. Friday’s matchup is partly for the traditionalists in WNC who remember when Hendersonville and Murphy were once together in a former version of the SMC. The Bearcats and first-year coach Jim Soesbee have as many returning all-conference players (four) as any team in WNC. Those players are Alex Williford, Tykel Landrum, Blaine Sharpe and Leon Cooks. Landrum hauled in 64 receptions for 1,217 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, good enough to get him a spot on the All-WNC team.
Pick: Murphy by 7.
DAVID CROCKETT (Tenn.) at MOUNTAIN HERITAGE
Last year: Mountain Heritage beat David Crockett, 42-28.
Notes: Fathers and sons share a unique bond. Especially when they are the brain trust of a football team. Mountain Heritage junior Trey Robinson (2,264 rushing yards, 1,007 passing yards and 45 combined touchdowns) is the preseason Western Highlands Conference Player of the Year. His dad, Joey, has more seniority (14 years) at his school than any other coach in the WHC. The Robinson’s are one of two father-son/coach-quarterback combos in WNC varsity football along with West Henderson coach Paul Whitaker and Falcons senior Brandon Whitaker. Trey Robinson was joined on last year’s All-WHC team by Adam Shuford (11.1 tackles per game) and Cole Burleson (29 receptions for 414 yards and 10 touchdowns on offense; nine interceptions on defense). Dathan Robinson (757 yards, seven touchdowns) will have company in the backfield from Madison’s top rusher in 2015 – Junior Denton (803 yards, one touchdown). Denton only appeared in six games due to an injury, averaging 133.8 yards per game and 12.2 per carry. Depth is not an issue for David Crockett which has a 59-man roster. The Jonesborough, Tenn., team lost by two touchdowns to Mountain Heritage a year ago, but later beat Cherokee, 40-21.
Pick: Mountain Heritage by 10.
POLK COUNTY at CHASE
Last year: Polk County beat Chase, 23-13.
Notes: What a couple acts to follow. Polk County junior Dillon Overholt is a cousin to the Wolverines’ last Shrine Bowl player – 2008 graduate Derrick Overholt – as well as the immediate successor to Jamal Tanner. That quarterback graduated last spring, leaving 14 broken school records in his wake. Overholt averaged five tackles a game on defense in 2015, slightly more than former All-Western Highlands Conference lineman Devin Panchyshyn (4.7). Polk County’s 5-7 record a year ago represented its first losing season since 2002. Gardner-Webb University must like what it sees at Chase – the college has offered scholarships to four Trojans seniors, including quarterback Tyrece McSwain.
Pick: Polk County by 7.
WEST WILKES at MITCHELL
Last year: Mitchell beat West Wilkes, 40-6.
Notes: Satisfaction guaranteed? Quite the contrary for Mitchell and Ben Young (2,535 passing yards, 766 rushing yards and 41 combined touchdowns). The Western Highlands Conference’s top returning passer and the Mountaineers were one win away from their first-ever state championship in 2015. You can bet a 48-28 loss to Wallace Rose Hill has haunted them in the offseason. Todd Self is a senior who should once again be one of the best lineman in the WHC. Receiving options for the defending 1-AA Western Regional champions are Alex McKinney (28 receptions for 500 yards and five touchdowns), Brody Smith (21 receptions for 292 yards) and Justin Greene (21 receptions for 255 yards and one touchdown). Another Greene, West Wilkes senior Zach Greene, made over 100 tackles in 2015. He is one of 15 returning starters for the Black Hawks.
Pick: Mitchell by 21.
AVERY COUNTY at HAMPTON (Tenn.)
Last year: Hampton beat Avery County, 54-17.
Notes: One is not always the loneliest number. Avery County and Christian Hicks (321 yards, four touchdowns) were one of four WNC teams to win one game in 2015. The Vikings should be able to improve on their worst season since 1971 with Van McCollum (157 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions) getting more reps at quarterback and ace receiver Brett Smith (31 receptions for 468 yards and six touchdowns) back in the mix. Steven Sanchez wrapped up 60 tackles last fall and made a half-dozen field goals, including three from 40 or more yards. Hampton racked up 559 yards of total offense in last year’s game versus Avery County.
Pick: Hampton by 21.
TOWNS COUNTY (Ga.) at HAYESVILLE
Last year: Hayesville beat Towns County, 20-3.
Notes: The real action was in the offseason for WNC football – almost one-third (nine) of its 31 schools changed coaches. Kenneth Dockery didn’t need a primer on the inner workings at Hayesville, having put in eight years as an offensive and defensive coordinator before his promotion last December. The Yellow Jackets have been picked to finish last (seventh) in the Smoky Mountain Conference preseason poll, but could defy those predictions behind Kyle Rhinehardt (1,308 yards and 16 touchdowns with 10 interceptions) Chayton McClure (6.4 tackles per game), Colton Thomas (5.5), Thomas Cothren (5.5), Logan Cowart (5.1), Nathan Barolet (4.7), Logan Thurmond (4.7). Hayesville got out to a 3-0 start under former coach Mitch Myers in 2015 before losing its last eight games. Towns County only has three seniors back from a team that went 2-8 last fall.
Pick: Hayesville by 7.
HAPEVILLE CHARTER (Ga.) at SWAIN COUNTY
Last year: Swain County beat Hapeville, 32-28.
Notes: Let the healing begin. Injuries of all shapes and sizes plagued Swain County throughout its first five-loss season since 2010. Running backs Chris Miller (knee) and Keshaun Beaner (shoulder) were among the players limited, but have been healthy this summer. Brodie Bowman (395 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions) no longer has to look over his shoulder as the Maroon Devils’ starting quarterback. His protection will include linemen such as Craig Cutshaw, Corbin Wildcat, Ice Littlejohn and Will Paul. Hapeville and Calvin Coney (538 yards, five touchdowns) will be traveling to Bryson City on Friday from the Atlanta area.
Pick: Swain County by 3.
CHEROKEE at TRINITY ACADEMY (Tenn.)
Last year: Cherokee beat Trinity Academy, 34-7.
Notes: Rewind just a little. It wasn’t that long ago that Cherokee was not only competing for Smoky Mountain Conference football championships, but winning them (2006 and 2007). If the Braves can stay healthy, this could be the year that a new SMC team challenges the Big Three of Murphy, Robbinsville and Swain County. Tye Mintz took the reins of the Cherokee offense as a freshman and has never let go. The junior is the top returning passer in the SMC based off last year’s numbers of 1,872 yards and 17 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. Some of the Braves receivers that Mintz will count on once again this year are Holden Straughan (33 receptions for 404 yards) and Isaiah Evans (25 receptions for 260 yards). Will Davis (7.9 tackles per game), Mintz (6.0), Joaquin Gabriel (4.6), Anthony Toineeta (4.5), and Byron Locust (4.2) were stalwarts for the defense in 2015. Trinity Academy went 5-6 last season, and besides Cherokee, faced Christ School (a 49-6 loss) and the Carolina Gladiators (a 56-0 win).
Pick: Cherokee by 14.
WINSTON-SALEM ATKINS AT CHRIST SCHOOL, 6 p.m.
Last year: Christ School beat Atkins, 48-6.
Notes: Many happy returns. Former 2,000-yard passer Drew Johnson (2,717 yards and 26 touchdowns with nine interceptions) heads up a group of 19 starters back for a Christ School team which reached last year’s NCISAA Division II finals. Other notable veterans are preseason all-state selections Kokayi Cobb (34 receptions for 417 yards and two touchdowns) and Jared Letman-Gash (33 receptions for 929 yards and 10 touchdowns). Former All-WNC linebacker Seth Griswold (13.5 tackles per game) has transferred in from Roberson and former Christ Church (S.C.) lineman/linebacker Ross Oakley should be a big contributor, too. Sage Holley is a Greenies senior who rushed for 1,545 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014. He sat out last season to nurse an injured shoulder and focus on lacrosse. Christ School has averaged 8.2 wins per year since 2011 under coach Mark Moroz. Atkins was a winless team (0-11) last season and the only member of its conference (Northwest 1-A) to miss the NCHSAA playoffs.
Pick: Christ School by 35.