Across WNC, high school football is king

THE THRILL OF VICTORY: Tuscola beat archrival Pisgah 35-34 in this year's Haywood County Championship Game. It was the first time the Mountaineers beat the Black Bears since 2012. Photo by Diana Gates Photography

Tears flowed freely under the lights of C.E. Weatherby Stadium in Waynesville the evening of Oct. 14. The Tuscola High Mountaineers had just earned a thrilling double-overtime victory over the Pisgah Bears, breaking a nine-game losing streak in the so-called Haywood County Championship Game.

Players, parents and cheerleaders — even the Mountaineers’ 10-year-old ball boy — were caught up in the emotional release of ending nearly a decade of frustration in one of the South’s fiercest high school football rivalries.

“I was just ecstatic. I mean, I was speechless,” says Katie Arrington, president of Tuscola’s Big T Booster Club. “I jumped up and down, and I felt pride and then joy, because I knew how bad our side of the county wanted it. But I also knew how bad the players and the coaches wanted it and how hard they had worked.”

The annual Tuscola-Pisgah clash draws crowds of 10,000 or more and is regularly showcased as part of the Great American Rivalry Series, which named it the best rivalry in North Carolina. Neither program has ever produced an NFL player, but locals say no schools in the state produce a more anticipated matchup or electric atmosphere each year.

“I’ve covered games where the turnstiles were still moving after the first quarter was over — people were still coming in,” says Michael Hughes, a freelance sportswriter and author of Stories from the Sidelines: High School Football Tales from the North Carolina Mountains. “One time in Waynesville, I had to park a mile away from the stadium and walked there barely in time for the game to start.”

Most credit the intensity of the rivalry to the fact Haywood County has only two high school football teams, with campuses located less than 9 miles apart. Tuscola sits on a hill outside Waynesville and serves students who live in the western part of the county. Pisgah is on the banks of the Pigeon River not far from Canton’s paper mill, long a major regional employer.

“It’s like a house divided,” says Mark Pinkston, the president of Pisgah’s Booster Club. People from all parts of the county work together at the mill and other places, he points out. They go to the same churches, frequent the same barbershops and eat at the same restaurants. And a victory in the big game, he says, assures a year of bragging rights in every social setting.

“You think about all the people that wear red and black [for Pisgah] or black and gold [for Tuscola] on game day, and they’re working in the same facility together. It’s fun and it brings both communities together,” Pinkston says.

Waynesville and Canton may be extreme examples, but they are not unusual. High school football often serves as the glue that holds together communities in Western North Carolina.

“Society as a whole is a lot more isolated than ever,” says Patrick Pohl, a broadcaster for A.C. Reynolds High. “But the football thing has pulled through. Everybody can put down whatever else they’re doing in their life, and there’s one thing they can all look to each week in the community. It doesn’t matter what you do, where you’re from or what your story is, you can go out and root for your local sports collective.”

Shutting down the town

Small towns in far western counties outside Asheville’s immediate orbit offer some of the best illustrations of the sport’s social importance.

BJ Laughter experienced the phenomenon firsthand when he became head coach at Hendersonville High School in 1997. Laughter grew up around the Bearcat program and thought he knew how intense high school football fandom could be.

“My first year, we entered into the Smoky Mountain Conference, and we would go to Robbinsville, and we’d go to Murphy and Swain County,” says Laughter, who coached the Hendersonville team until 2013. “And it’s just different. You go roll into a Murphy, and there’s nothing open. Literally, the town shuts down. And in Hendersonville, that is not the case. It meant so much more to those communities.”

In Graham County’s Robbinsville, says sportswriter Hughes, the whole community revolves around the Black Knights, who have won 14 1A state championships. As you enter the town — population 597, as of the 2020 census — a sign reads “Welcome to Title Town in the Mountains.”

Murphy High School in Cherokee County has won 10 state titles, and Swain County High in Bryson City has earned eight. Many of these communities have experienced plant closings and job losses over the years, leaving local economies on shaky ground. “Football gives them something to hold on to and point to with pride,” Pohl says.

Teams in Buncombe and nearby counties don’t like to travel too far west, Hughes explains, so those western powerhouses often have trouble scheduling nonconference home games. As a result, the teams and their fans spend a lot of time on the road, and they take particular glee in beating eastern teams.

“Swain would come to our place and would have more fans in the stands than we did,” recalls Laughter.

Buncombe County pigskin

But the Asheville area has plenty of high school football tradition of its own. The Asheville High Cougars have been competing for more than a century and have won 22 conference championships and three state titles.

“They’ve had a lot of trouble over the years getting away games because nobody wants to play ’em,” Hughes says. “They have had a couple of bumps in the road in recent years, but they seem to be coming back a little bit.”

And while Buncombe County doesn’t have anything like the Pisgah-Tuscola game, it has plenty of long-standing rivalries. Pohl, who also serves as treasurer of the A.C. Reynolds Booster Club, says Rockets supporters get particularly excited about two in-county duels.

“When the schedule comes out, everybody points to the T.C. Roberson game and the Asheville game, and everybody says, ‘These are the two we’re going to go to, whether they are home or away,'” he explains.

Erwin and Enka high schools also have a long-standing rivalry that flies a bit under the radar, Hughes says. And in the private school ranks, Christ School and Asheville School have been rivals since 1911. “The Game” between the schools, played at the end of each season, is the oldest high school football rivalry in the Carolinas.

“It’s basically their Super Bowl,” Hughes says. “Christ School has really revamped their program of late, and so they’re starting to dominate.”

100 years of football

UNRIVALED RIVALRY: Pisgah and Tuscola have met on the gridiron every season since 1966. Pisgah leads the all-time series, 31-27-1. Photo by Diana Gates Photography

For many communities, part of high school football’s appeal is that its traditions are handed down from generation to generation. As co-owner of Bob’s Sports Store in Waynesville for 51 years, Kenny Mull has watched kids from both ends of Haywood County grow up to play for Tuscola or Pisgah over the decades. And these days, the children and grandchildren of those former kids are suiting up for the Mountaineers or Bears.

The Main Street store, which is closing at the end of the year, displays some old team photos from Waynesville Township High School, the precursor to Pisgah. That team started the tradition of intracounty rivalry in 1922 with a game against the now-defunct Canton High.

“People come in, and they’ll look at the picture and say, ‘Hey, that’s my grandpa in that picture’ or ‘That’s my daddy,'” Mull says.

The Big T club’s Arrington also believes Tuscola football can serve as an entry point for newcomers to learn about Waynesville’s culture and traditions. Many of those people regularly attend games at Weatherby Stadium, especially if they have small children, she says.

North Carolina’s high school football season officially ends next month with the state championship games. But football is never really out of season in Haywood County.

Pisgah fans, after a few days of lying low, are now willing to show their heads at Bob’s Sports Store. They’re already looking ahead to next year’s game, when the Black Bears will have a chance to end Tuscola’s winning streak at one game.

Mountaineer partisans, meanwhile, will be savoring their victory for the next 11 months. It’s been that way since 1966, when the Black Bears and Mountaineers first met on the gridiron. (Pisgah won, 26-12.)

“Haywood County citizens are respectful of the tradition,” says the Pisgah booster club’s Pinkston. “They’re respectful of the opportunities they have, and frankly, thankful that we have this rivalry that we can brag about. I hope it continues.”

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