Blues Repeat as State Champs; Falcons Bow Out - TribPapers
Sports

Blues Repeat as State Champs; Falcons Bow Out

West WR Diego Castro (11) leaps for a pass, but Hickory CB Will Prince has the interception in the end zone. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Hickory – Asheville School repeated as champion among N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II private schools. The Blues (8-3) defeated Fayetteville Trinity Christian (10-2) by 42-29 on Nov. 17. A see-saw first half ended at 21-all. The Blues struck for two touchdowns in the third quarter, to pull away.

Former A.C. Reynolds quarterback Ricky Tolbert ran for two TDs and 94 yards. He threw for two TDs and 138 yards. The junior passed for 2,147 yards and 25 TDs in 2023. Tolbert passed to fellow former Rocket Hayezon Tobe for a 25-yard TD in a 55-0 semifinal thrashing of Hickory Grove Christian 55-0.

Rugged Caleb Jenkins rushed for 156 yards versus Trinity, to total 1,042 yards. Two Blues scored on turnovers: K.M. Shipman on a fumble, and Justin Rowe on a 65-yard interception return.

Asheville School head coach Shawn Bryson, a Franklin High star runner, helped captain the 1998 national champion UT Vols. He played seven NFL seasons. Bryson turns 47 on Nov. 30. Offensive coordinator Adam Rice, a former Hendersonville Bearcat lineman, successfully proposed marriage to his wife Kyna right after the 2022 title win.

Fourth-seeded Christ School lost 56-17 to top-seeded Rabun Gap-Nachoochee, Ga., in round two for larger Division I private schools.

Thankful Falcons

In a NCHSAA 3A West Region semifinal, third-seeded West Henderson (13-1) lost 28-16 at unbeaten second seed Hickory on Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving.

Falcon Nation has much to be thankful for. The team set school football seasonal records for most (13) victories, longest unbeaten streak (13), and most playoff wins (three). West surpassed its 12-1 seasons of 1984 and 2022.

“We love you,” head coach Paul Whitaker told Falcons post-game. “For what you’ve done in the past two years, I’m so proud.”

“They’ll be talking about you for a long time,” fiery defensive coordinator Daniel Holbert said of the historic season. Assistant Robbie Lowrance said, “You exceeded” expectations.

Shrine Bowl-bound receiver Truitt Manuel totaled over 2,400 yards in 2023. “How I feel setting these (team win) records is tremendously amazing,” he said. “But it’s not just me. It’s the team, putting in work since four years ago.”

Quarterback Cade Young said that “it feels amazing making it this far” in playoffs. The sophomore eyes a third straight unbeaten regular season in 2024, and more. “Hopefully, we can beat these records next year!”

Coach Whitaker empathized with how seniors’ Falcon careers suddenly ended. “It hurts. It stings like a bee. But we appreciate all that you’ve done.”

And as Whitaker told the Tribune, “I’m very proud we didn’t quit in the second half.” West held a team that scored 61 points a week earlier to less than half as many points. “We fought. We played our tails off.”

“Family!,” the players chanted as they broke the post-game huddle. After positional subgroup pep talks, coaches hugged players.

During a game where West was trailing 28-3, a disheartened Falcon player received a touching moment of support when Coach Whitaker paused his strategizing, walked over to the player, and embraced him for a long period of time to provide comfort.

Truitt’s Encore

West had trouble sustaining drives until scoring two late TDs. In contrast, Young passed for a career-best 341 yards and four TD passes to Manuel against Oak Grove a week earlier.

Manuel (89 REC, 1,396 yards) scored his 17th TD. He pretended to stay in to block. He took a short pass 63 yards around the right side. He totaled 2,409 yards in ’23.

Young launched a TD pass to wide-open junior Tayman Howell up the middle, for the round four game’s final score. They are among stars eager to continue Falcon success in 2024.

Tornadoes Strike Early

Hickory ran away from A.C. Reynolds 61-38 in round three. QB Brady Stober, a 3,500-yard passer, picked apart athletic ACR for 525 aerial yards and five TDs. Falcon coaches compared Stober to 2022 West QB Lukas Kachilo, for consistent accuracy. Kachilo-to-Manuel was WNC’s leading passing combo in ’22.

Stober’s performance against West was a mixed bag as he only managed 120 passing yards, but he made an impact right from the start by connecting with junior Jamien Little for a 32-yard touchdown on the opening play. The Red Tornadoes dominated with two touchdowns in both the first and third quarters, while West responded with a field goal early on and two touchdowns in the final quarter, leaving the second quarter scoreless.

The ferocious Falcon defense led by junior defensive end Tyson Nash and senior LB Eben Mann sacked Stober three times. Neil Robinson, a swift junior, picked off Stober twice near the end zone. Manuel had a long INT return. West recovered two HHS fumbles in the final three minutes, but did not score.

Leading WNC Rusher Dimsdale

Hickory’s quick defense stifled WNC’s leading rusher Carson Dimsdale, who was hindered by an ankle sprain, and sophomore Zane McCraw. Senior Dimsdale leads WNC rushers with 2,135 yards and 33 TDs. He’s a TD and nearly 100 yards ahead of Cuttler Adams, whose Robbinsville remains in 1A playoffs.

The Red Tornadoes made three INTs. Their fumble recovery at the West five set up Stober’s keeper to the goal line. Manuel smashed the ball loose. But Isaiah Lackey recovered it in the end zone for a HHS TD. Later, Lackey rumbled 35 yards. Photos prove that Manuel stripped the ball away just before Lackey crossed the goal line. The ball bounced through the end zone, for a deserved touchback. Refs errantly ruled Lackey scored before fumbling. Hickory led 28-3.