Get ready to rumble
LEDGER – A fierce rivalry will be renewed Friday night in Ledger when the Class 1-A No. 6-ranked Mitchell High School varsity football team hosts rival Mountain Heritage in the first Western Highlands Conference game of the season for both teams.
The Mountaineers (5-1) roll into the contest with a five-game winning streak in tow. Since falling 34-21 to Erwin in Week 1, Mitchell has scored 41 or more points four times and has held opponents to 14 or fewer points three times.
The high-octane Mitchell offense has scored 41 or more points in each of its last four games, including a season-high 45 points in its previous win over R-S Central.
Mountain Heritage is riding a winning streak of its own – a three-game streak since a 50-40 loss to Erwin in Week 2.
Mountain Heritage (4-1) kept its streak alive Friday, Sept. 21, by edging Hendersonville 22-21.
Much like the Mountaineers, the Cougars have done their share of scoring this season. Mountain Heritage has scored 50 or more points twice this season and poured a season-high 52 points onto Rosman.
The Cougars defense has held opponents to 14 or fewer points three times this season.
Both Mitchell and Mountain Heritage will enter the game fresh off bye weeks. The two teams met following a bye week last season, and the Cougars won 30-20 at home.
Mountain Heritage’s win last season was part of its 8-0 home record. The Cougars rolled through the regular season undefeated and earned three 2-A state playoff wins before falling 27-20 to top-seeded Reidsville in the regional finals.
This year’s version of the Cougars looks significantly different, starting with a new face behind center.
Last year’s team leader Trey Robinson has graduated, leaving a big offensive hole for Mountain Heritage to fill.
Trey Robinson completed 46 percent of his passes for 851 yards last season. He tossed 13 touchdowns compared to four interceptions.
Trey Robinson was the team’s leading rusher. He ran 344 times for 3,146 yards and 45 touchdowns, which was more than all of the team’s running backs combined.
The Cougars also graduated seniors Dathan Robinson and Dawson Branton who were the team’s second- and third-leading rushers behind Trey Robinson.
Dathan Robinson racked up 1,479 yards and 13 touchdowns on 226 carries. Branton ran 53 times for 413 yards and five scores.
Mountain Heritage’s top returning rusher is Brandon Aumiller who ran 18 times for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns this past season.
The Cougars defense returns leading tackler London Neill (134 tackles) and defensive end Zeb Virnelson who lead the team last season in sacks (seven) and quarterback hurries (30).
Mountain Heritage turned the keys of its offense over to junior quarterback Callin Randolph. Through five games, he has completed 44 percent of his passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns to one interception.
For the Cougars, the story on offense has been the ground game. The team is averaging 346.8 rushing yards per contest.
Senior Jake Autrey has been Mountain Heritage’s workhorse runner. He leads the team in carries (69), rushing yards (450) and 100-yard games (three).
Senior Jacob Mashburn has also been critical to the Mountain Heritage rushing attack. He has 32 carries for 383 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
Mitchell’s offensive leader and starting quarterback Noah Pitman has as big of a chip on his shoulder heading into the game as anyone.
Pitman has been on the wrong side of a matchup with Mountain Heritage two other times in his prep career-- the Mountaineers lost 34-7 at home to the Cougars when Pitman was a freshman and Pitman was a sophomore last season when Mitchell lost by 10 to the Cougars on the road.
“I’ve never beaten Heritage, and I’d really like to,” Pitman said. “It’s a lot different than any other game, but at the same time, you have to look at it as just another game. Everyone in the community wants us to win, and I think we’ve got a big chance this year of bringing home a win.”
Pitman’s confidence is rising as he settles into his role as the team’s starting quarterback. He said he feels like he has grown as a field general each week this season.
Pitman has completed 48 percent of his passes for 505 yards. He has six touchdowns compared to one interception.
Pitman is also the team’s leading rusher with 79 carries for 657 yards to go along with six touchdowns.
Senior running back Landon Miller is another vital part of the team’s rushing attack as he holds team-highs in carries (82) and rushing touchdowns (eight) to complement his 561 rushing yards.
Pitman said keeping pace with the Mountain Heritage offense will be a tall order, but he added that while the team respects the Cougars, they think they’re a different team from last season.
“They’re still pretty good,” Pitman said about the Cougars. “I don’t think they are the team they were last year whatsoever.”
Cougars head coach Joey Robinson said while his team has changed, this year’s group is focused and experienced.
“Both of our teams graduated two great senior classes,” Joey Robinson said. “You hope that you don’t just build a program for individual teams but that you have a program that can sustain. Our kids have a ton of confidence, and they’re built off the leadership from the past four years.”
Joey Robinson said Mitchell is well-coached and plays the game similarly to his team.
“They’re almost a mirror-image of us,” he said. “We run a lot of the same plays.”
Joey Robinson said the Cougars might have more speed this year than they have had during his tenure and added that Mitchell has a size advantage in the trenches.
“They have great size,” Joey Robinson said about Mitchell. “I think they’re bigger than us up front. We’re lean and athletic up front.”
Joey Robinson said all of his team’s eyes on defense will be on Pitman and Miller.
“Landon Miller is a bell-cow running back,” Joey Robinson said. “He is the leader on offense and defense; I don’t think there’s any doubt. Noah is an explosive kid who can break one at any time. When you have two guys back there with that big-play ability, that’s a pretty good two-headed monster.”
Joey Robinson said players on both sides should relax this week and enjoy the atmosphere of the rivalry game.
“It’s as big for the community as it is for anybody,” Joey Robinson said. “It’s a special week for the kids, and you just have to embrace it and have fun with it.”
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. Friday in Ledger.
‘Battle of the Toe River’ through the years
2017: 30-20 Mountain Heritage
2016: 34-7 Mountain Heritage
2015: 41-27 Mountain Heritage
2014: 26-22 Mitchell
2013: 30-0 Mountain Heritage
2012: 28-6 Mountain Heritage
2011: 31-28 Mitchell
2010: 28-7 Mountain Heritage
2009: 69-18 Mountain Heritage
2008: 21-6 Mountain Heritage