On a bitter cold December night 40 years ago, high-school stadiums in Waynesville and Sylva were packed to watch two local football teams play for state titles.
A similar scene will be played out Saturday 250 miles away in Raleigh - 40 years to the day - when another pair of WNC teams chase the same goal and dream.
In the first year of the state playing true East-West state title games, Sylva-Webster High and Tuscola won championships on Dec. 1, 1972, the Golden Eagles polishing off Williamston 41-21 for the 2-A crown and Tuscola declared the 3-A co-champion after battling Sanford to a 14-14 tie.
Smoky Mountain Conference powers Murphy (1-A) and Swain (1-AA) play Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium, home of N.C. State, each trying to defend state championships won last year.
Murphy (13-2) goes after its seventh state crown in an 11 a.m. start against Plymouth (14-1), while Swain (15-0) plays for its ninth title vs. Southwest Onslow (13-1)in a 3 p.m. kickoff.
A new game
Prior to 1972, high-school football championships were a disorganized mismash, with the four different classes (4-A to 1-A) handling title games in differing manners.
Some declared regional and/or East and West winners, others had as many as four regional winners.
But uniformity was organized by '72, when each of the four classes had an East and West champion meet for one true state title.
Since 2002, the four classes have been sub-divided into eight different playoff brackets, an A and AA in each class based on enrollment.
Locally, WNC in '72 was represented in state championship games by two teams that opened that season season by playing each other.
Sylva-Webster, a powerhouse under coach Charles "Babe" Howell that had won 2-A Regional 4 titles in 1963 and '66, and upstart Tuscola - under second-year coach Joe Caldwell - would play to a 14-14 tie in the season opener.
"We beat them pretty good. They were a pretty good-sized 3-A school but we pushed them up and down the field pretty good, but it ended in a tie," said Tom Burchfiel, 57, of Barnardsville, who played in the game.
That tie would be the only blemish on the Golden Eagles' record, a team that had seldom-used future star Jimmy Streater as a reserve defensive back and featured eight players who would go on to compete in college.
Running a version of the veer, Sylva-Webster won 13 straight games without a loss after the Tuscola game, capped by the rout of Williamston.
"We had a great team, some really good football players that seemed to get better and better as the season went on," said Terry Smith, 56, of Sylva, who rushed for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the title game.
"We were very well-coached, and Williamston was a very good team. They went up 7-0 on us, and we hadn't hardly been behind all season, but then we got it rolling."
A tie was good enough
While few were surprised by Sylva-Webster's success, not many expected Tuscola to still be playing in December.
But after tying Sylva-Webster, the Mountaineers went on to an 11-1-2 record, finishing the season in the 3-A championship game vs. Sanford the exact same way they started the year, in a 14-14 tie.
"We tied the first game and we tied the last game," Tuscola running back Billy DeHart told a Citizen-Times reporter after the game.
"I'm just glad we didn't lose."
Sanford took a 14-6 lead into the halftime locker room, and Caldwell, who had played at Alabama with legendary Pisgah High coach Joe Compton, used an interesting strategy to inspire his players.
Despite the spirit and intensity of the former Canton-Waynesville (and now Pisgah-Tuscola) rivlary, Caldwell asked his old buddy to talk to his players.
"I talked to them a bit, told them we were only one score behind and that we could come back," Caldwell, 79, said from his home in south Georgia.
"Joe had come into the locker room, and he was an old friend, so I asked him if he had anything to say.
"He said we weren't playing our game, that we didn't look anything like the team that had beaten him a couple of weeks before, and that all we had to do was just start playing our game."
In front of an overflow crowd of more than 6,000 at Weatherby Stadium, the Mountaineers did just that in the second half.
DeHart scored on a short run with seven minutes remaining, running out of the Notre Dame box, and tied the score on a two-point conversion run, bobbling the snap before recovering just in time to dive headfirst into the end zone.
The Tuscola defense limited Sanford to one first down and 30 yards of offense in the second half, and Caldwell thought his team would be awarded the win despite the tie score because the Mountaineers had a 204-158 edge in total offense.
"We thought we had won on penetration (the total yardage advantage)," Caldwell said that night.
"Then, with about 10 seconds left, (the officials) said that a co-championship would be given."
While most competitors would have wanted an overtime to determine a winner, Caldwell said he was content with the tie.
"Both teams played their hearts out and deserved to win," he said earlier this week.
"So now you are going to put the ball on the 10 (yard-line) and four plays are going to determine a championship? That's not right.
"It was an even game, leave it at that and we are both champions."
Murphy and Swain hope to be saying that Saturday, 40 years to the day two mountain programs won WNC's first state titles of the modern era.