Changing trend? Hendersonville’s win over Shelby is part of playoff rarity in Cleveland County’s rich high school football history

By Richard Walker

Cleveland County’s high school football has been so dominant for so long, it’s hard to imagine a season without at least one of the county’s schools in a regional final.

Owen High’s Brad Johnson, shown here in the 1986 Asheville Citizen-Times football preview, went 1-2 against Cleveland County teams as a high school quarterback before playing at Florida State and winning Super Bowl XXXVII as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback.

But after a historic winless 0-3 night in the regional semifinals on Friday night, Cleveland County will be shut out of the regional finals for the first time since 2012 and only the third time in 20 years.

And one of the culprits of Cleveland County’s misery pulled off a historic upset as Hendersonville did something few schools from the Asheville area have ever done: Beat a county school, Shelby in particular, in a playoff game.

How rare was the Bearcats’ 33-31 win over Shelby?

Not only was the first time a team from the Asheville area had beaten the Golden Lions in a playoff game since 1996 – a streak of 13 consecutive Shelby wins – but it the fourth win all-time by teams from that area in 30 meetings against Shelby.

Of course, Shelby is not alone in racking up playoff success on schools from the area as Burns, Crest and Kings Mountain all have winning records against Asheville area competition.

In the words of WWNC radio broadcaster Mike Morgan, “A lot of good mountain teams have gone to Cleveland County to die!”

In total, Cleveland County teams have a 51-16-1 all-time record against teams from the Asheville area; Shelby is 26-4, Crest 10-1, Burns 8-5 and Kings Mountain 7-6-1.

Even more impressively, those four schools are 19-9 in road games against Asheville area schools in the postseason.

The Cleveland County schools have been equal opportunity tormentors as they’ve knocked off A.C. Reynolds, Asheville, Brevard, Clyde Erwin, East Henderson, Enka, Franklin, Hendersonville, North Henderson, Owen, Pisgah, Smoky Mountain, T.C. Roberson, Tuscola and West Henderson over the years.

None of the Asheville area schools have a winning record in the playoffs against Cleveland County – and only Asheville (4-4-1) and Hendersonville (1-1) have as much as break-even records.

The most tortured teams have been Owen (1-7), T.C. Roberson (1-5), West Henderson (1-5) and Pisgah (2-5).

Owen’s record includes a 1-2 mark when the Warhorses had future Super Bowl-winning NFL quarterback Brad Johnson playing for them in 1985 and 1986.

In 1985, Shelby eliminated Owen in the opening round. And in 1986, after Owen recorded its only win against the county in a second round win over Kings Mountain, the Warhorses were again eliminated by an eventual state champion Shelby team in 1986.

In fact, 10 times a Cleveland County school has won a state title while eliminating an Asheville area school on its journey – Shelby in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1998, 2005, 2006 and 2016, Crest in 2003 and 2004 and Burns in 1994.

Crest’s titles in 2003 and 2004 came after a 2002 third round loss to Asheville that not only came on an infamous Cleveland County night – the first time the county had three schools lose in the playoffs on the same night (that happened again in 2009 and on Friday) – but it marked the last postseason win by teams from the Asheville area until Friday’s Hendersonville victory over Shelby.

Can Hendersonville’s win start a trend in the other direction for Asheville area schools?

Shelby’s previous two playoff losses to teams from the Asheville area were equally historic but the Golden Lions clearly rebounded.

In 1994, Pisgah’s 22-10 win over Shelby marks the last time the Golden Lions lost in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs; Shelby has won 26 straight first round games ever since.

In 1996, Brevard took advantage of six Shelby turnovers to rout the Golden Lions 36-0 in the second round of Class 3A state playoffs for the worst postseason loss in Shelby history; The Golden Lions have won nine state titles in the 24 years since then.