By David Rogers. November 10, 2017. BOONE, NC — Some 4th quarter razzle-dazzle by the Pioneers broke open a defensive slugfest Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium, helping Watauga to a 21-9 win over Asheville in the first round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3AA Football Championship tournament. With the win, Watauga advances to the second round next Friday, when the Pioneers will visit #1 seeded Mt. Tabor in Winston-Salem.
COVER IMAGE: Sophomore QB Anderson Castle drags along an Asheville defender early in the first half.
The Pioneers’ sophomore quarterback Anderson Castle rushed 27 times for 202 yards and a trifecta of touchdowns, including two in the decisive final period.
Watauga came into the playoff contest with a 10-2 overall record, the two losses coming in Northwestern Conference play vs. eventual league champion Alexander Central and St. Stephens, which finished the regular season in a tie for third place. Through the 11-game regular season, the Pioneers averaged 43.9 points per game with their run-emphasized option offense.
Asheville finished second in the Western Mountain 3A Conference behind perennial powerhouse A.C. Reynolds, finishing the season 7-5 overall and 7-1 in conference play. Over the last eight games of the regular season, Asheville averaged 31.5 points per game — and that included being shutout by Reynolds on October 13.
With those histories many reckoned that Friday night’s playoff opener might be a high scoring thriller, but it turned out to be something quite different. Through the first three quarters of play, the athletic, senior-laden roster of Cougars kept Watauga contained. Their effort included forcing two turnovers in the third quarter to thwart otherwise impressive offensive drives by the Pioneers. Meanwhile, a gutsy performance by the young Watauga defense, as well as a series of successive Asheville penalties — seemingly on every Cougar possession — at times had the visitors going fast in the wrong direction.
Keys To The Game
- Led by Castle’s 202 yards rushing, Watauga’s ground attack rolled up 356 yards of total offense
- Watauga’s clock management and rushing attack combined to keep Asheville’s athletic offense off the field
- Trick plays on 3rd and 4th downs early in the 4th quarter gave momentum to the Watauga offense on the way to a TD, and inspired the defense to protect the field to the finish
- Asheville had problems with discipline. Several offensive possessions were thwarted by consecutive or multiple penalties
Asheville’s first possession of the second half started with a short field in front of them after an abbreviated Watauga kickoff and a 14-yard return by junior Trevon Robinson. It allowed the visitors to start their drive from midfield. A first down in two plays all went for naught, though, when the Cougars were flagged for offensive holding, setting the ball back to the Watauga 46. One play later, a Cougar was penalized for a block in the back, and suddenly Asheville was looking at 2nd-and-26. They got almost half of it back on second down, but then a third down pass that fluttered incomplete put them in a punting situation.
One of Asheville’s impact players of the night was, in fact, punter Holland West. To end this particular offensive possession, West placed the ball almost perfectly, it being downed at the Watauga 3-yard line. Undismayed, Castle burst through the line of scrimmage on Watauga’s first play from scrimmage for 22 yards, then wingback Zach West added another 19 yards, and fullback Ben Critcher burst up the middle for 16 yards more. That sequence gave the Pioneers a 1st-and-10 on the Asheville 36, looking like at least a field goal was in the offing.
But a Castle pass found its way into the hands of the Cougars’ senior strong safety, Dana Campbell, Jr., an interception at the Asheville 17-yard line. After allowing consecutive Cougar first downs, Watauga’s defense stiffened and forced the visitors to punt. Sophomore punter West proved his value once again, booting the ball downfield and the Asheville special teams unit downing the ball on the Watauga one-yard line this time.
Their backs against the wall, so to speak, most in the partisan Pioneer crowd were just hoping that Watauga could escape not giving up a safety — or worse — but on the second play of the possession, Castle found a gap around the right side and wrestled free from a would-be tackler to ramble 53 yards and into Cougar territory. On the next play, Critcher had the ball punched out of his arms at the Asheville 39, and another promising Watauga drive came to an end as ASH’s senior cornerback Buddy Robinson fell on the fumble.
Asheville was able to work the ball downfield this time, overcoming just a single false start penalty. Solid rushing gains of 15, 9 and 3 yards by junior back Tristan McAfee highlighted the drive, but Watauga’s defense held steady and the Cougars settled for a 38-yard field goal by punter/kicker West. It may only have been three points, but it gave Asheville its first lead of the night at 9-7.
In response, Watauga head coach Ryan Habich dug deep into his playbook. After sophomore Jaidon Bond, Critcher, Castle and (Zach) West helped the Pioneers get to the Asheville 43 with runs of 12, 5, 12, and 14 yards, respectively. As the third quarter was drawing to a close Castle hit West for a 40 yard pass, only to have it negated by an illegal motion penalty.
But the excitement was just beginning. On 3rd and 15, Castle hit Bond in the right flat, then the sophomore WR lateraled to West coming around the outside for an old-fashioned “hook and ladder” play. An unidentified, but very athletic Cougar defender recovered enough to limit the gain to just 7 yards, but on 4th-and-7 Habich & Co. spun the excitement dial again.
Castle flipped the ball to wide receiver (and backup QB Jackson Greene) behind the line of scrimmage on the left, and Greene then hurled a pass to Bond at the Cougars’ 10-yard line for a 28 yard gain. It wasn’t the prettiest pass that Greene has ever thrown (WATA-AM radio sportscaster Mike Kelly described it as a “dying quail”), but it was enough to get the ball in the hands of the wide open Bond — and another Pioneer first down. Castle didn’t waste any time, quickly dashing through a confused Cougar defense for the 10-yard TD and (with Kyran Densham’s PAT kick) a 14-9 Pioneer lead with 10:43 remaining in the game.
Asheville started the next possession with another very short field after a 34 yard kickoff return to the Watauga 40, but solid efforts by a now inspired Watauga put the Cougars in a go-for-it situation on 4th and 5. Quarterback Three Hillier’s pass to Campbell fell incomplete and the Pioneers took over on downs.
Watauga took possession with 9:17 left in the contest and, led by Castle, fashioned an 11-play, 65-yard drive that not only ended with a nail-in-the-coffin touchdown to put the Pioneers ahead 21-9, but took more than six minutes off the clock.
Hillier and the Cougars had one more flash of excitement when the sophomore QB hit Trevon Robinson for a 64-yard catch-and-run, but an offensive pass interference penalty nullified the gain. Four plays later, after three incomplete passes Watauga cornerback Greene intercepted a Hillier pass to end the threat and finish the action.
Watauga now advances to the second round, facing the West bracket’s #1 seed Mt. Tabor in Winston-Salem next Friday, 7:30 pm. The Spartans were 34-6 first round winners over Ashbrook-Gastonia on Friday. The are 10-2 overall on the season and finished Piedmont Triad Conference play undefeated at 6-0. They have scored 346 points in 12 games (28.8 avg.), while giving up 182 (15.2 avg.).