By Lance Hickey
NBHS – With the best start to a season since 2014, a late comeback by the North Buncombe BlackHawks fell short in a contest of two of Western North Carolina’s unbeaten teams. Smoky Mountain High School was able to proclaim a 26-24 victory in front of a nearly sellout crowd in Weaverville Friday evening.
North Buncombe received the opening possession of the game and began to move the ball down the field, but committed a turnover-on-downs following an unsuccessful fourth down attempt. Smoky Mountain responded on their first possession on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Quarterback James Hinson to Dustin Stephens as the Mustangs took an early 6-0 lead following an unsuccessful point-after attempt with 5:31 remaining in the first quarter.
The BlackHawks came alive on their next possession as they systematically drove 73 yards on 14 plays, capping the drive off on a Caden Higgins six-yard quarterback keeper to tie the game at 6-6 with seven seconds gone by in the second quarter. The Hawks point-after attempt was also unsuccessful.
The Mustangs were unable to find an answer on their next possession as Nose Guard Eric Rice recovered a fumble by halfback Will Frady, handing the BlackHawks the ball right back. North Buncombe took advantage of the Smoky Mountain miscue soon after as Skyler Jutras would convert on a one-yard touchdown scamper to give the BlackHawks a six-point lead at 12-6 with 8:07 remaining in the half. A BlackHawk two-point conversion to obtain an eight-point advantage was no good.
Following defensive stands over the next several series for both teams, Smoky Mountain received the ball on the Hawk 29-yard-line. The Mustangs would capitalize shortly afterwards on a Hinson quarterback keeper, giving Smoky Mountain a 13-12 lead with 1:36 left in the half. North Buncombe’s attempt to score before the end of the quarter was disrupted following an interception by the Mustangs just before the end of the half. The halftime score remained 13-12 Smoky Mountain.
Smoky Mountain received the ball to begin the start the second half and were held to a three-and-out. After several different unsuccessful possessions by both teams, the BlackHawks would finally respond on a Jutras 1-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds remaining in the third quarter. North Buncombe would not convert on a two-point conversion attempt, leaving the score at 18-13, Hawks.
Smoky Mountain had yet another answer with a Stephens 4-yard touchdown run with 10:47 left in the game. The Mustangs led 19-18 following their own fruitless two-point conversion attempt. Another Stephens touchdown run, this time from 24 yards out, gave the Mustangs a 26-18 lead with 3:02 remaining in the game.
North Buncombe was not finished. In a spirited comeback attempt, Higgins led the BlackHawks in a 13-play, 71-yard drive, capped off by a Jutras two-yard touchdown run, with 12 seconds left in the game. The score brought the BlackHawks within two points at 26-24. Higgins’ pass fell short as North Buncombe did not convert on its two-point conversion attempt.
North Buncombe (2-1) would go on to lose 26-24, suffering its first loss of the season in heartbreaking fashion. It was another stellar night from both Jutras, 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and Higgins, 103 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. While the BlackHawks likely have a bad taste in their mouths from this painful loss to a talented Smoky Mountain (3-0) squad, they had the best start since their 2014 season. The next matchups will be West Henderson and T.C. Roberson.