Eight months after being introduced as the 13th head coach of Western Carolina's football program, the first official game of the Mark Speir Era is
here. The Catamounts host mountain-foe, Mars Hill, at 8:00 pm on Thursday, Aug. 30, on campus at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
"We're ready to play a football game and see what this 2012 Catamount football team is going to be all about," said Speir during Tuesday's Southern Conference head coaches' teleconference. "I'm real proud of our guys; they've really bought into what our staff and what we're trying to get established here. I think we've set a great foundation for how we're going to work and we're going to run and operate a program. But, overall, we're tired of talking about it - we're ready to go to work."
Thursday's game will be broadcast on the Catamount Sports Network with air time of 7:00 pm across nine stations and online at CatamountSports.com. Fans can listen to the game locally on WWCU-FM, Power 90dot5 in Cullowhee; 540 AM WRGC in Sylva; 1050 AM WFSC in Franklin; 920 AM WPTL in Canton; on ESPN Radio 1310 and 970 AM in Asheville/Canton; 1600 AM WTZQ in Hendersonville; 1150 AM WAVO in Charlotte/Rock Hill, S.C.; and 1270 AM WCGC in Belmont/Gaston County.
Western Carolina and Mars Hill meet for the 20th time on the football gridiron in the pre-Labor Day Weekend game, under the lights in Cullowhee. The Catamounts lead the all-time series, 13-5-1, and have won 13-straight games in the series that dates back to 1931 including last year's 52-31 home victory over the Lions.
Freshman quarterback Troy Mitchell is expected to get the starting nod on Thursday night as the preseason favorite - redshirt sophomore Eddie Sullivan - will not start the opener because of a violation of team rules. Mitchell headlines a talented youth movement in the WCU program and is joined on the pregame two-deep by freshman tailback Darius Ramsey, back-up QB, Jonah Duggan, receiver Spearman Robinson, and linemen Josh Wineburg, Matt DeGraffinreed and Hunter Kirby; and defensively by lineman Caleb Hawkins and defensive backs Jaleel Lorquet and Sertonuse Harris.
"We are going to play a lot of freshmen - a lot of true freshmen. There are at least nine true freshmen that are going to have a major part of the ball game on Thursday night. And in reality, a true freshman head coach out there, too," added Speir.
Mars Hill is coming off a very good season that saw the Lions finish 8-3 and advance to the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Lions posted a 6-1 league mark, sharing the South Atlantic Conference championship with 2012 preseason favorite, Lenior-Rhyne.
"Mars Hill is a solid, good football team. (Head coach) Tim Clifton has been there a long time; and he's a heck of a football coach. They're very sound. Defensively, they don't do a whole lot - but what they do they do well. They make you earn everything you get. Offensively, they lost the great tailback (Jonas Randolph) but they've got a young man in Shaikel Davis that's an outstanding tailback. They've got a lot of players returning from a playoff team from a year ago. They're a team that we've got to show up, play our best ball to go win."
In last year's meeting, WCU put a school-record 45 points on the board in the first half to lead 45-17 at the break en route to the 52-31 victory. The Catamounts amassed 663 yards of total offense including 328 on the ground led by a career-high 203 - and four rushing touchdowns - by Shaun Warren.
The Lions were equally as effective in the ground attack, rushing for 300 of the team's 466 yards of total offense led by since graduated All-America selection, Jonas Randolph, with 174 yards and two touchdowns. Returning running back Shaikel Davis rushed 10 times for 100 yards.
Mars Hill's offense is under the direction of redshirt senior quarterback Jon Richt - the son of Univ. of Georgia head football coach, Mark Richt. The Clemson transfer threw for 105 yards against the Catamounts in last season's meeting on 11-of-33 passing with no interceptions.
Defensively, the Lions return leading tackler Rudy Cabral who finished with 106 total tackles a season ago including 55 solo stops. Cabral, who had 9.5 tackles for loss in 2011, recorded eight stops in the meeting with the Catamounts last season.
Photo Courtesy: Mark Speir, WCU Athletics