Mills River – West Henderson scorched Tuscola 55-7 Friday to win the Mountain Seven crown, as Lukas Kachilo passed to Truitt Manuel for five touchdowns — three in the opening quarter.
The Falcons flew to their first league championship in 26 years and their first undefeated regular season since 1984. West Henderson Falcons (10-0; 6-0 M7) are the 3A West Region’s second seed. They open playoffs at home this Friday versus North Davidson (3-7).
Other local teams at home in round one are Mountain Foothills runner-up Hendersonville Bearcats (8-2; 4-1) in 2A, Mountain Athletic Conference champ A.C. Reynolds Rockets (9-1; 6-0) and MAC runner-up Asheville Cougars (8-2; 5-1) in 4A, and MAC 3A top seed Erwn (5-5; 3-3). T.C. Roberson Rams (6-4; 4-2) are on the road in 4A.
The Buncombe stat leader Friday was Erwin’s Iggy Welch. He passed for 453 yards and five touchdowns – three to Ty Johnson – in a 62-21 win over North Buncombe.
“We played with emotion,” West senior Kachilo said. “We play for many people — our team, our school, our community.” Manuel said, “we rose to the occasion.”
How West thumped Tuscola was simple for junior linebacker Jackson Lynn, among others. He said “they couldn’t hang with our offense, and our defense shut them down.” Senior lineman Jesse Baldwin called the blowout “incredible.” He credits team “chemistry.”
Head coach Paul Whitaker told his Falcons “way to come out and get after them!” He reminded them that the league championship is a reward for weeks of practice, including “running on the track when it feels 100 degrees.”
Defense Ignites Rout
West literally got the “ball rolling” by smashing it out of Tuscola quarterback Jett Benson’s hands on a sack. Three Falcons ran around blockers and blasted Benson. Andrew Schultz grabbed the loose ball for West at Tuscola’s ten yard line. Manuel called it a “great defensive play. It set the tone for the whole game.”
The Mountaineers led by 1000-yard rusher Dez Rodriguez and QB Benson, a RB in ‘21, averaged 35 points and about 300 rushing yards behind its college-sized offensive line. Blockers average 278 pounds. But they managed 36 yards in the first half, at a paltry 1.71 yards per rush. The faster Falcons converged on ball carriers. As Schultz said, “we dominated” across the field as a whole.
Finley Sullivan and Lynn made sacks. Lynn said, “they couldn’t run fast enough to get away from us.” Lynn said “our coaching staff had great schemes. We performed them well.”
A pivotal defensive play was when Aiden Ostman deflected a fourth-down pass to the end zone. That set up West’s third TD.
Caleb Collany foiled the next Tuscola drive by snatching his team-leading sixth interception early in the second quarter. The 6-foot-2 Collany craves guarding a receiver one-on-one. He said Benson often “lobbed it up” for grabs. “I like the odds. I figure the ball is mine!”
West symbolically beat its own past with the pass in this matchup. West’s offense was run-heavy for decades. No more. The Falcons are in season two of utilizing the spread with senior Kachilo’s strong passing. Tuscola still relies on the run, as a ghost of Falcons past.
Kachilo accounted for seven of the eight Falcon TDs. He threw for six scores and ran for another one. He was on fire in completing 23 of 29 passes for 302 yards. “He is always ‘on the money’ with his throws,” Manuel said. Kachilo said he and receivers often practice on “timing” route running with throws. Their precision beats tight coverage.
Kachilo finished the regular season leading WNC public schools in passing with 2,627 yards (263 ypg.) and 34 TDs (3.4 per game). He threw merely six interceptions. He ran for eight TDs.
He gets extra coaching from Jonathan Crompton. Crompton ironically starred at QB for Tuscola, then the Tennessee Vols in 2009.
Kachilo said Tuscola tried a “cover four” zone later but mainly tried defending one-on-one. He likes facing such coverage since “I know my guys are better than yours” defending.
The advantage starts with fast, strong and athletic junior Manuel. He kept beating quick but smaller Benson one-on-one. He faked him out to get quickly open. He beat him deep with his long stride. And when Benson stuck to him, Manuel out-powered him to come up with the long pass.
Manuel had 13 of 23 Falcon receptions for 218 yards — more than two-thirds of Falcon aerial yards. Manuel’s seasonal totals are 76 catches for 1,136 yards (114 ypg.) and 20 TDs. That is the triple crown for public school receivers. He said “I love the job our O-line did” in pass protection and run blocking.
Manuel’s first TD catch went for two yards. He hung on despite tight coverage. This seemingly unstoppable play is a quick toss wide right into the near corner of the end zone. “It’s a flat route,” Manuel explained. “I almost faded back to the end zone, as the play went on. So the defense has no chance to make a play on the ball.” That is because the husky 6-2 Manuel gets superb positionining. He faces the ball with his back to the defender. He thereby shields the defender from the ball.
Manuel celebrated that first TD more dramatically than any other one in 2022. He did quick, repeated fist pumps. He followed through with a hearty pseudo-punch. He said right after the game “I was pumped up!”
Manuel’s next two receiving scores covered 43 and 32 yards. He caught a bomb down the right side on the five and streaked past CB Benson, raising his left hand in celebration while carrying the ball in his other hand.
West scored its third TD of the quarter as Manuel gained 29 yards and 32 yards on successive receptions. His diving catch in the middle of the end zone was a dandy. West led 21-0 merely 8:29 into the game at that point. Several Falcons said they felt firmly in control of the game by then. Manuel’s last two TD receptions went for 15 and 23 yards.
Coach Whitaker said, “We hit a few deep throws, to open up the short game” for many first-down gains running and passing and to control the clock once up big. He noted “we take what they give us. They were ‘tight in the box’” early to guard against the run and short passes.
Senior Lawson Sullivan’s nine-yard catch to the Tuscola one-yard line set up the first TD. TE Cameron Banks had four receptions, Diego Castro three with one TD, and Lynn had one catch. RB Tayman Howell gained 35 yards on two receptions. Castro has 39 receptions and Banks has 37.
Kachilo scrambled ten yards to the left side for the fourth TD. That was after Manuel’s 17-yard run got West into the red zone.
Kachilo was elusive and deceptive on the next scoring play. He ran left and looked that way towards Manuel. But Kachilo abruptly pivoted back. He fired a bullet to wide open Diego Castro in the center of the end zone. West led 35-0 after Irbin Villafuerte‘s PAT. This was 54 seconds before halftime.
Manuel as the punter set up that score with a daring run on fourth-and-five from the West 32. He saw an opening and dashed to the right to gain 13 yards and a first down.
Tuscola Mountaineers (9-1; 5-1) avoided a shutout with a short Benson TD pass on the final play of the first half. But they scored no more.
The Falcons notched two TDs in the third quarter, to lead by 42 and trigger a running clock. Kachilo threw to Manuel in the right side of the end zone. Manuel said that “the second I caught that one, I knew they were done for!” The two stars connected for an encore score on a toss to the left side of the end zone. Manuel clutched the ball, with Benson wrapped around him. That was with 47 seconds left in the third quarter.
Howell dashed 70 yards on a run for the final score. West rushed for 200 yards — led by Howell with 103 and Carson Dimsdale with 78 (10 ypc.).
Whitaker was an assistant coach in 1996. That is when West last won a league – the Apple Country Conference. West (9-2) was led by RB Doug Greene and QB Josh Pettit. Whitaker was on the 1984 Falcons as a varsity sophomore. He backed up QB Dietrich Martin. That squad was unbeaten in the regular season, then reached three playoff rounds.