By David Coulson. April 9, 2017. BOONE, NC — There was a steep learning curve awaiting the expansion High Country Grizzlies Sunday afternoon in their showdown at the Holmes Convocation Center against the first-place Jacksonville Sharks.
All photographic images by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
And the Sharks ran the Grizzlies off the tracks early on the way to a 68-21 victory in the National Arena League football game.
“It was just one of those games,” said Jacksonville coach Mark Stoute. “For us, the ball bounced our way early.”
The Sharks (4-0) pounced on the Grizzlies with Charlie Hunt’s 46-yard interception return for six points on the High Country squad’s first possession and Jacksonville quarterback Tommy Grady connected with Darryl Thompson for a 42-yard scoring strike on the Sharks’ second play from scrimmage to expand the lead to 13-0.
You see why Jacksonville is the top team in the league.
The shell-shocked Grizzlies (2-2) gave up 28 second-quarter points to fall behind 41-0 by halftime and never recovered.
“You see now why Jacksonville is the top team in the league,” High Country receiver Malachi Jones said. “They did a great job of making sure we didn’t go deep.”
Jones made a pair of incredible catches — one for a 15-yard touchdown in the third period — among the game-high 12 receptions for this ex-Appalachian State star, but there were few other highlights for the Grizzlies on an afternoon where they were outplayed from start to finish.
Fullback Undra Hendrix also sparked High Country at times with his hard-slashing rushing and finished with 13 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns as the Grizzlies struggled to find consistency on offense.
It was a particularly rough day for Grizzly quarterback Stephen Panasuk, who finished 24-of-42 passing with 152 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.
“We didn’t come ready to play today,” said Panasuk. “It’s not a good pill to swallow. It better be a tough lesson for this team.”
We didn’t come ready to play. It’s not a good pill to swallow.
With the Grizzly offense struggling, the efficiency of Shark QB Tommy Grady proved lethal. The former Utah standout was 10-of-14 for 217 yards and five touchdowns passing.
In a game where empty possessions were likely to prove costly, Grady and company committed just one turnover, while the Jacksonville defense forced five High Country miscues.
Another factor that stung the Grizzlies was a rash of injuries that challenged the young franchise’s 23-player active roster.
Nose tackle Brandon Sutton, one of the top pass rushers in the league, broke a finger early in the first quarter and was sidelined for most of the game. Leg injuries also eliminated linebacker Darius Lipford and defensive back Jimmy Legree, among others.
“It was rough to watch,” said Sutton.
The Grizzlies have a week off to try and get healthy before returning to action on the road on April 22 at 7 p.m. against the Columbus (Ga.) Lions. The next home game for the High Country squad will be May 7 against the Georgia Firebirds, a team that the Grizzlies beat 62-29 away from Boone in the season opener.