Hendersonville – Hendersonville Bearcats sport much that is new and promising — a young head coach, quarterback and artificial turf field — to go with the usual array of skill and grit on a state title contender.
The Bearcats won the Mountain Foothills Conference’s inaugural crown in fall 2021, won two playoff rounds in each of the past two seasons, and were 10-2 last fall. They are a perennial contender with an explosive offense and punishing defense. All-state sackmaster C.J. Landrum sets goals for the very top — to “bring back that ring” as state champions for the first time since HHS won back-to-back 2A titles in 1968 and ‘69.
Kirron Ward moves up from assistant to Top Cat. He succeeds Jim Sosebee. Ward said, “We’ll continue to be wide open, and spread it out. I worked closely with Sosebee in this offense. I learned what to look for, and how to attack defenses.”
Ward, 38, a 2002 HHS grad, is “excited to be at the helm.” He starred as a Bearcat lineman and tight end. He revved up teammates. “I don’t like losing. I’d voice my opinion and concerns.” He coached HHS varsity receivers since 2008.
The Bearcats play at Mountain Foothills consensus co-favorite Chase Sept. 30. HHS retursn eight starters on offense and nine on defense. Two-way skill stars are again running back Hezzie Rudisill and receivers Eric Rasheed, Lennard Benniefield, Malik Angram and Tayshawn Collins. Rasheed runs a 4.39. The others are in the brisk 4.4-4.5 range in the 40 yard dash, and are now stronger, Ward noted.
Next Star QB: Gibbs
This much firepower makes it easier for swift and strong new dual-threat quarterback Elyjah Gibbs (6-1, 175 jr.) to succeed WNC’s leading passer, Gavin Gosnell who now plays for the University of South Florida. Gibbs threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns of 30-plus yards in the opener. “I’m impressed with his poise and his composure,” Coach Ward said. “He made great decisions” and throws with tight spirals.
Gibbs said “I can run the ball a lot” as well. “If the (passing) play’s there, you throw it. If not, tuck it and run. Get what you can.” Gibbs is also a rifle-armed baseball catcher. Ward noted Gibbs developed quick reactions as a starting DB last fall.
Also, “he’s not afraid of pressure,” Coach Ward said. “Elyja’s leading the charge. He wants to be great. He loves the game. He’s a born leader. He’s got great chemistry with the guys. He has confidence in the guys around him.” Indeed, Gibbs said “I’ll use all of my ‘tools’ — his skilled teammates.
Hendersonville returns its fastest set of four starting receivers ever. They are all-stater Eric Rasheed (5-9, 170 sr.), Lennard Benniefield (5-10, 175 sr.), Malik Angram (5-10, 170 jr.) and Tayshawn Collins (5-11, 162 jr.). Rasheed scored on 19 of his 62 receptions and had 1,212 receiving yards last fall. He caught two TDs last Friday, and led HHS with 203 receiving yards. Rasheed said, “We’re locked in. We’re fired up!”
Benniefield (42 rec., 855 yards) and Malik Angram (48, 794) are coming off of big seasons. Benniefield, brother of recent HHS receiving great Tykel Landrum, scored the HHS season’s first TD on a punt return. Collins was Gibbs’ leading receiver on JV two seasons ago. “Elyjah trusts him,” Ward said. Collins caught two TD passes Friday, and was second with 119 receiving yards. Ward likes how HHS receivers run routes well, are fast and “elusive,” and “physical to use leverage” against defenders to make catches.
Hezzie Rudisill (5-11, 170 so.) rushed for 1,064 yards and 16 TDs as a freshman. “Hezzie is natural at finding creases, and exploiting the speed of opposing defense” by suddenly shifting directions, Ward said. Backing him is tough power runner Todd “T.J.” Lattimore (6-0, 170 jr.).
The Big Cats opening holes include all-state RG Will Capell (5-10, 305 sr.) and fellow returning starters LT Reece Wilson (6-2, 270 sr.) and center Colton Ballard (6-2, 300 so.). They adjust well on the go. Joining them are Graham Painter (6-1, 245 so.) and Matthew Sparks (6-0, 250 jr.). “They’re smart. They know their job. They’re strong. They have to set the tone against teams thinking we’re just pass-happy. We have to be physical.”
Lefty all-state kicker Cooper King (6-2, 180 sr.) can boot field goals longer than 50 yards. “Cooper is integral to our success — with his field goals, extra points, long kickoffs and punts,” Ward said.
New D-coordinator Dave Mains’ 4-3 base features LBs Paul Orr (5-10, 190 sr.), Dennis Waters (5-10, 170 sr.), Malachi Jacobs (6-4, 185 jr.), Lattimore (who had a sack in week one) and Rudisill. As usual, HHS pressures QBs and stuffs runs. The D-line has DEs C.J. Landrum (6-3, 225 jr.) and Avery Thomas (6-0, 200 jr.), and DTs Eli Kole-Davis (6-0, 285 sr.) and Brock Stepp (6-3, 255 sr.). Landrum is “our (vocal) defensive leader” since freshman days, Ward said. “C.J. plays so hard sideline to sideline.” Gibbs is a DB. Benniefield made five picks last season, and Rasheed and Angram four each. All three exceeded 55 tackles.
“I’m excited about our defense,” Coach Ward said. “We fly around, and make plays. Our guys love to hit.” On offense “we’ve got to make plays, limit mistakes and take care of business.” Ward said Bearcats “know our expectations. We want to win conference, get some home playoff games, and ultimately to win state.”