By Tim Gardner
In Mac Bryan’s first year as Avery High’s head football coach (2018), the Vikings struggled to find their new identity, only finishing 2-9 over-all and 1-4 in the Western Highlands 2-A, 1-A Conference. Their victories came over 2-A schools Draughn (32-28) and Madison (48-46), the latter a conference foe.
2019 football practice started for North Carolina High School Athletics Association schools August 1, and indications point to the 1-A Vikings being improved. Some publications are predicting Avery could be one of the area’s surprise prep teams this season.
Nothing would please Bryan any better. The veteran coach has had coaching tenures as either an assistant or head coach at thirteen schools on various collegiate and prep levels, including a highly successful one as Lees-McRae College’s head coach. There he went 44-10-1 and led the Bobcats to a No. 1 ranking in the final National Junior College regular-season poll and the National Championship game in 1987. Bryan has compiled a 153-122-1 overall high school coaching record. He has the second most prep wins of any active head coach in the Western Highlands 2-A, 1-A Conference behind Polk County’s Bruce Ollis (217-154 over-all).
“Avery has had good football tradition and our players are working hard to return the school to it winning ways,” Bryan said. “We have a ways to go to develop into a championship contender, which is always the goal of any team. But we’re heading in the right direction and look to show marked improvement this season.”
Despite their woes in 2018, the Vikings found their quarterback for the immediate future. Junior Troy Hoilman has emerged as a top signal-caller in the Western Highlands Conference. He threw for 1,457 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 139-of-263 passes in 2018. All were among the best passing totals among prep quarterbacks in the North Carolina Mountains.
Avery will have to find a way to replace Sam McCollum, who led the team with 1,104 rushing yards. But the Vikings have a solid next option in senior running back Lucas Andrews, who also finished with a team-high 135 tackles on defense.
They’ll also return a bevy of wide receivers, including seniors Jonas Bowman and Jesse Jones.
A key for success the Vikings achieve this season will be if they can show considerable defensive improvement. They surrendered 570 points in eleven games while scoring only 205 in 2018, being outscored an average of 51.8 to 18.5 points per game.
Avery was especially generous against the run, allowing an average of 328 yards per game.
But they have talent returning on the offensive and defensive lines, including sophomore Levi Andrews, a state champion wrestler who finished with 85 tackles and eight for a loss in 2018. His presence along with a more over-all seasoned defensive unit than Bryan started with a season ago should help Avery be tougher to run against.
Offensively, Avery will use a Spread offense, throwing the ball all over the field. Bryan’s Spread has one back, no huddle, with three or four receivers, including at times, a ‘Y’ back, who is a cross between a fullback and a moving tight end, and who will align behind a tackle.
Defensively, Avery has moved from a 3-4 set of a season ago, which Bryan felt better suited his personnel then, to a 4-3 that he most prefers. The defense is basically a Multiple Eight, which has four down linemen in a 4-2-5 scheme.
Avery lacked numbers (of players) and size last year. Getting more players out to develop much-needed depth and continuing to shore up their over-all size across the offensive and defensive fronts will be priorities for Bryan. But how much better the Vikings are defending the run may be the top determining factor of how improved they will be as a team from last year.
“Our players have worked extremely hard in the weight room and in doing all the necessary things they need to do to improve their skills,” Bryan noted. “We will have stronger players and be better in various ways than we were a season ago, However, we still lack depth and player injuries could devastate us.”
Avery has a more favorable schedule than in 2018 which should help it better compete with its opposition. Bryan dropped long-time and nearby rival Watauga, formerly a 4-A, and currently a 3-A size school that Avery had played every year since the school opened in 1968. Watauga has a 37-14-1 lead in the series. Except for a scoreless tie in 1979, Watauga won every game–nineteen– the schools played until 1988 when the Vikings finally prevailed 26-7. But since then, Avery considerably cut away the lopsidedness of the series. The Pioneers have only a slim 17-13 series lead the last thirty years. The Vikings won eight out of ten games against Watauga during the 1990s. But they lost the last seven since beating Watauga 21-0 in 2011.
“We needed to play some schools our size to get back to where we need to be,” Bryan said. “There’s a big difference between having 1,400 kids (like Watauga has) and having 580 kids (as Avery does). I hope to renew the series in a couple of years.”
Besides Watauga, the Vikings also will not play 4-A McDowell or 2-A Chase this fall as they did in 2018. Instead, the Vikings scheduled 3-A North Buncombe and a pair of 2-A schools in West Wilkes and North Wilkes. Bryan is a former head coach at West Wilkes.
The Western Highlands Conference consists of three 2-A schools in Madison, Mountain Heritage and Owen along with three 1-A’s in Avery, Mitchell and Polk County.
The Vikings will be an underdog in the race for the league championship. Bryan said he considers defending conference champion Mountain Heritage to again be the league favorite, followed by Mitchell.
“Until Mountain Heritage gets knocked off its championship perch, it’s still the top pick and Mitchell will have another really good team,” he predicted. “It’s been a trend for those two to be the conference’s top teams the past few years. Hopefully, we’ll be right in the thick of the race with Polk County, Owen, and Madison with a chance to upset Mountain Heritage and Mitchell.”
But Avery should definitely top its win total from last season, perhaps reaching five or six wins and maybe even achieving a winning record.
The complete 2019 Avery schedule follows:
August 23 Ashe County – Avery County Schools Appreciation Game – 7:30 p.m.
August 30 West Wilkes – Endowment Game – 7:30 p.m.
September 6 at North Buncombe (Weaverville, NC) – 7:30 p.m.
September 13 North Wilkes – Salute To Service Game – 7:30 p.m.
September 20 at Draughn (Valdese, NC) – 7:30 p.m.
September 27 at Cloudland (Roan Mountain, TN) – 7:30 p.m.
October 4 Open
October 11 Mountain Heritage* – Cancer Awareness Game – 7:30 p.m.
October 18 at Madison* (Marshall, NC) – 7:30 p.m.
October 25 Polk County* Homecoming – 7:30 p.m.
November 1 Owen* Senior Night – 7:30 p.m.
November 8 at Mitchell* (Ledger, NC) – 7:30 p.m.
*Denotes Western Highlands Game