By Pete Zamplas
“Apple (Festival) turnovers” were plentiful on Apple Festival opening night Friday in both close local varsity football games, with an assortment of interceptions, fumbles and even a blocked punt.
Bearcat QB Joel Christner (9 in white) is about to snatch an errant shotgun snap, before Falcon LB Josh Dockery (9) can get it for a TD. West scored a two-point safety, on this pivotal play that was among several turnovers. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
In the end West Henderson (2-0) held off Hendersonville 16-13, while East Henderson stormed from behind to edge North Henderson 20-14 in double overtime.
“Our kids kept telling me ‘we got this, Coach!,’ Eagles head coach Justin Heatherly said. “They kept playing their hearts out.”
Rushing-focused West lifted its imaginary “No Passing Zone” sign on Johnson Field, for the offensive play of the game. Auden Brennan connected with fellow senior Kyle Gaither on a 23-yard touchdown, for what held up as the winning score.
This Gavin Gosnell pass goes to East receiver Mason Green (3). Knight Damarquis McCluney (7) grabs Gosnell, while Windell Flowers (1) leaps at him. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Gaither was wide open. The nearest defender seemingly was in downtown Hendersonville, at the Apple Festival main stage. Gaither collected the pass at the eleven yard line, then dashed in. As soon as he scored, Gaither held the ball up for the world to see. West thus reopened a two-score lead, at 16-6, with 4:23 left in the third quarter.
West picked off four HHS passes in the first half alone, to set the tone.
West Henderson’s Kyle Gaither (8) gathers in a reception, for the clinching score over HHS Friday. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
West’s victory over HHS (1-1) in football was its first for any current varsity Falcon, since the last one was four years ago in 2015. Thus the celebration was extra emotional. Head coach Paul Whitaker was drenched in ice water. Players, cheerleaders and students whooped it up.
“This is our field!,” senior back Austin Jenkins taunted back to HHS fans far away in visiting stands, as he grinned and stayed in the middle of the field. Jenkins scored the opening TD. He told The Tribune there was much smack talk between sides the night before, at the junior varsity game that HHS barely won. “They were talkin’ a lot, about how they’d do this and do that” in the varsity contest.
North Henderson’s top playmaker “Z” McDaniel (10) breaks free for a TD, and the Knights led East 14-0. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Coach Whitaker told his Falcons in the post-game huddle that “by golly, we finally did it” in beating HHS again. He put importance on the fabled county championship, with this a huge step. Whitaker lauded how the Falcon defense “bent, but did not break” and never relinquished the lead. He said, “I’m proud of you. You dug deep, when you needed to find something.”
Meanwhile in the Apple Bowl, revved-up North Henderson (0-2) led 14-0 at home at halftime, before East Henderson (1-1) roared back and prevailed 20-14 in double overtime.
East won it on Isaiah Ibarra’s 15-yard TD run. He bounced off of two Knights, in the final five yards. Ibarra scored earlier on a two-yard TD run off tackle on fourth down. The TD and the PAT tied it at 14 in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was scoreless.
In the first OT, North recovered an Eagle fumble to start its series on the two but could not punch it it. But East blocked the 21-yard field goal attempt, to live on. In the second OT, North then went first but again scored no points. Luis Garcia sacked Rhodes, on third down. North’s 32-yard field goal try was short.
Each side made a dramatic turnover in this game. First, Zidyan Phoeun blocked an East punt, and Alex Williams recovered at the Eagle two. Windell Flowers took a pitch, and burst into the end zone on the right side.
North led 14-0 after a 53-yard scoring pass play. Brian Payne, now the North QB, found Zachary “Z” McDaniel in traffic at the East 42. The Caribbean Typhoon did the rest. “Z” spun away from one tackler, bounced off of another Eagle, then scored. Earlier, Z caught a short pass then zoomed down the left side on a 67-yard run to paydirt. That play and Z’s 30-yard score were each nullified by a penalty. Still, North’s passing clicked for big plays. East struggled on offense in the opening half, with 72 total yards. “Hats off to their defense,” Heatherly said. “They played great.”
But East scored two TDs in the third quarter, in a four-minute span. The first was on a dramatic turnover play of its own. Big Gus Shealy snatched a deflected fumble on a forward pitch at his 48, and went the distance 52 yards untouched. That was with 7:44 left in the third. Ibarra’s TD run and the PAT knotted the score at 14.
Eagle QB Gavin Gosnell was injured on McCluney’s sack in the fourth quarter, and on crutches. Former QB Garrett Adkinson came in at quarterback, then it was Mason Green in OT.
East hosts West this Friday, in an historic rivalry. Both high schools opened in fall 1960, and are in their 60th academic year. North has the week off, before tangling with Owen at home.
In Mills River, the Falcons struck for the first TD and led 7-0 at halftime. They made it 9-0 on a two-point safety, three minutes into the second half. The HHS shotgun snap sailed over sub QB Joel Christner’s left shoulder, and off of his fingertips. Christner raced back into the end zone to beat the other number 9 — Falcon Josh Dockery — to the bouncing ball to prevent a West TD. Dockery tackled Christner in the end zone for the safety. HHS had to punt the ball right back to West, which devours the clock with relentless rushing.
Yet an errant snap also plagued West, to get HHS back into the game. A punt snap sailed far overhead, and Brantley Holmberg pounced on it to give HHS the ball. Jay Gaines promptly raced 23 yards up the middle — barely touched — for a TD. The score tightened, to 9-7. Gaither’s TD reception — the game’s third score within four and a half minutes — gave West breathing room.
HHS closed the gap again, two minutes into the final quarter. Richmond Felton’s TD run made it 16-13. But kicking malfunctioned for Hendersonville — first on the missed PAT, then as the would-be tying field goal sailed barely wide left with 3:38 left. HHS had barely run for a first down on fourth and two, to set up first and goal at West’s ten but stagnated there. On fourth and still ten to go, HHS went for a tying kick instead of the go-ahead TD.
West has already defeated two very fast squads (East Rutherford, HHS) in rehearsals for WMAC contests against swift Reynolds, Erwin, Asheville and Roberson.
HHS bright spots included debut of sophomore Hazhan Collington, a fast slashing runner who fought for extra yards.
Starting QB Woody Hunter was the last Bearcat on the field, after the game. He said he was off in the first half, but proud how the team fought back in the second half to nearly win.
Hunter is optimistic the team will bounce back. “We’ll keep our heads up,” he vowed.
Next up is a virtual track meet at Asheville this Friday. HHS beat the equally fast Cougars a year ago.