Waynesville – Tuscola Mountaineers are back in their prior conference and with renewed hopes.
Tuscola (1-1) beat Madison 33-8 in its fall opener then dropped a 42-36 shootout with former MAC rival Roberson last Friday. THS was a mid-level force in the MAC for the past four seasons but returns to what is now the Mountain Seven. The Mountaineers have M7 title aspirations.
They are eager to snap the eight-game losing streak to Pisgah in the Battle of Haywood County. Tuscola hosts Pisgah Oct. 15. Beating Pisgah would be “happier than Christmas,” star lineman Jacob Broom said with a grin. Other rivals include West Henderson which followed THS into the MAC and back into the M7, and nearby M7 school Smoky Mountain.
Tuscola returns six starters on each side of the ball from a squad that was 2-5 in the spring season in Chris Brookshire’s debut as its head coach. THS closed with two wins then a narrow 13-7 road loss to MAC champ Reynolds.
Charismatic quarterback Jared Penland (6-3, 200 sr.) again leads Tuscola’s multiple spread attack. The lefty said he hopes to get the green light to pass more. He hit Bryant Oancea (6-3, 165 so.) for a touchdown pass versus Madison. Penland initiated a trick play. He tossed a lateral to receiver Jeff Benson (5-11, 185 jr.), who threw short to fast freshman Sawyer Belue (5-9, 140 fr.). Belue cruised in alone for the score. Belue gained 57 yards on a crossing pattern in week two. His father is Tuscola A.D. Michael Belue.
Penland also shined in week two. He ran 44 yards to set up his early 4-yard TD run. He threw four TD passes. He rallied with a TD pass to Oancea in the final minute. The Mounties recovered the onside kick and made a first down, but a Hail Mary was incomplete.
QB Penland is optimistic with a can-do spirit, Broom said. “If a play goes bad, he shakes it off. He tells us ‘let’s do better the next time.’”
Tuscola historically mostly runs the ball. Stocky fullback Jadon Mintz (5-11, 215 sr.) figures to be a workhorse as initial option in the triple option Tuscola often deploys. Mason Baker (5-7, 140 sr.), Nick Baker (5-8, 150 sr.) and Hunter Russell (5-8, 185 sr.) are other senior runners. Riley Noland (5-10, 160 jr.) had a 30-yard run Friday. They help fill the void of ‘21 grad Garret Fox who averaged over 100 rushing yards.
The line’s anchor is Jacob Broom (6-4, 290 sr.). Other big Mountaineers include Jason Langley (6-2, 260 sr.), Ian Barker (6-4, 250 jr.), Boone Williamson (5-8, 315 jr.), Nick Teague (5-11, 275 jr.), Cameron Caldwell (5-9, 265 jr.) and a pair of 290-pound sophomores in 6-4 Stephen Brooks and 6-2 Calvin Hall.
The 3-4 base defense features ballhawk cornerback Darien Lunsford (5-9, 160 sr.). The all-state star made six interceptions — nearly one per game in the abbreviated spring season and against many pass-happy MAC foes. THS coaches believe this led WNC if not the entire state. He sprained his shoulder in the fall opener, missed the second game, but is expected back against Erwin in week three.
Coach Brookshire calls the defense “tough” and critical to team success. THS forced five Madison turnovers.
Lunsford said Brookshire prepares the team well and sees that “we do our jobs.” Broom said Brookshire is a fiery in-game motivator. “He hypes us up, to help get momentum on our side.”
A rock near Doug Brooks Field touts “Mountaineer spirit, Mountaineer pride; Steady as a rock.” Tuscola hopes to carry those attributes to success in this season.