Polk captures Western Highlands Conference title

Published 11:17 pm Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jordan Smith scored three times in Polk County's win over Owen. (photo by Mark Schmerling)

Jordan Smith scored three times in Polk County’s win over Owen. (photo by Mark Schmerling)

Last Wednesday, Polk County High School head football coach Bruce Ollis told running back Matt Darden that he dreamed that Darden ran back a kickoff for a touchdown.

Polk's defense smothered Owen's offensive bests.

Polk’s defense smothered Owen’s offensive bests.

On Friday night Ollis’s dream became the Wolverines’ reality as Darden took an Owen kickoff at his nine yard line, and barreled 93 yards for a touchdown. Anthony Marino’s PAT attempt was good; the score was 7-7; and the Wolverines were on their way to a 41-24 win that gave them the Western Highlands Conference title.

Polk had entered the contest at 4-0 in conference play, while their hosts, sported a 5-0 mark. The Wolverines are 7-3 overall.

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“This football team was 0-3 two months ago,” Ollis told his jubilant players after the game. “You never quit believing.”

“We rose to the occasion,” Ollis said later. “Stopping them early in the game, that was huge.”

Stopping Owen meant containing their outstanding running back Jager Gardner, who entered the game with over 2,200 yards in nine games. Gardner did show his talents on with a 58-yard carry to Polk’s six yard line in the first quarter, to set up the game’s first touchdown. On Owen’s first possession, he tore off a 44-yard run. However, by the second half, the Wolverines’ swarming defense reduced Gardner to an unfulfilled threat.

Owen’s Austin Bennett and Zee Johnston also reeled off some good runs, but, like Gardner, could not turn the game around for the Warhorses.

Owen took the opening kickoff, and, marched downfield On a fourth and three at the Polk five, Owen elected to try a field goal, and missed, no doubt prompting some second guessing as the game slipped away from the Warhorses.

After Polk took over at its 20, Reece Schlabach’s pass was picked off, but Polk got the ball back on a fumble recovery. After marching past midfield, Polk lost the ball on a handoff attempt, after which, Owen posted its first score.

That marked the only time the Warhorses led the game, because Darden, the WHC 100-meter sprint champion, made his kickoff runback moments later.

After twelve minutes, it was 7-7. Polk forced Owen to punt, then showed how ball-control and sustained drives make a winning team. From its 30, the Wolverines marched downfield to their second touchdown, courtesy of gains by Schlabach, Jordan Smith, and Jamal Tanner, with Tanner taking the ball into the end zone.

Taking Polk’s kickoff, Owen threatened again, advancing to the Wolverine six, before Polk’s Anthony Carson broke up a pass in the end zone. With fourth and five to go at the six, Owen tried again for three points. This time, the kick was good, reducing Polk’s lead to 14-10. On its next possession Polk advanced to Owen’s 20 before the clock ran down to mark halftime.

In the third quarter, Polk kept the momentum. Jordan Smith took the kickoff to Owen’s 38. A penalty against Owen on that play moved the ball to the 23. A Schlabach keeper took the ball to the ten. From the five Smith scored the first of his three TDs, with benefit of some key blocking. Marino added yet another extra point, and Polk led 21-10.

Tanner, who has exhibited great control on kickoffs, barely moved the ball on this effort. Owen took over at Polk’s 39, and with 6:46 left in the third quarter, scored a touchdown to make it 21-16. The Warhorses tried to add two points on the ground, but Polk stopped the play cold.

Long runs by Schlabach, and key gains by Tanner and Smith took the ball to the Owen five. With 3:24 left in the quarter, Schlabach took the ball in from the five. Marino’s kick made it 28-16.

This time, Tanner’s kickoff was deep, forcing Owen to start play on its own ten. Owen’s subsequent punt gave Polk the ball on its 48, and advanced to Owen’s 25, before turning the ball over on downs. But, lightning, this time in the form of Jordan Smith, struck Owen again, as Smith picked off a pass and ran it back for a touchdown with 10:19 remaining in the game. The Wolverines’ two-point try was no good, but they led, 34-16. Polk fans, who smelled a conference title could now taste it.

It tasted closer and better when the Wolverines made it 41-16. Ground gains by Schlabach, Tanner and Smith set up Smith’s third TD run, this from Owen’s three. Marino’s kick banged off an upright, but landed inside to end the Wolverines’ scoring.

Owen’s, and the game’s scoring, ended with a 65-yard run by Chris McHone, and a two-point conversion.

“We beat a quality football team,” announced Ollis after the clock ran out. “They beat a dadgum good football team. They continued to believe in us as coaches. They continued to believe in themselves as players.”

Referring to Darden’s brilliant kickoff runback, Ollis noted, “Matt’s the 100-meter sprint champion in the Western Highlands Conference, and he proved it right there.”

As much as Polk’s offense has taken off since early in the season, so has the Wolverines’ tackling become fearsome.

“We played team defense,” said Ollis. “We swarmed the football.” Ollis observed that solo tackles were less numerous than gang tackles, as evidenced by several white jerseys greeting Owen ball carriers on most plays.

Ollis pointed out that this is the Wolverines’ fifth WHC title since 2006. “Our focus is on winning that game (at home against Hendersonville) next week (Nov. 8), so we can be outright champions. We’re going to relish this right now.”

Friday’s game also celebrates Senior Night, and closes out the regular season.