By David Rogers. November 18, 2016. BOONE, NC — A ripsnorter. An old fashioned barnburner. A roller coaster. A thrill ride for the ages. Pick whatever word or phrase you want to describe Watauga’s just short of magical, 50-49 win Friday night over visiting Southwest Guilford in the first round of the North Carolina 4A State Football Championships. Just don’t call it boring.
COVER IMAGE: Evan Suggs takes off for a big chunk of his 243 yards rushing on the night. Photographic image by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
SLIDESHOWS at Bottom by Brad Batchelor and David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
It was one of those games that you wish neither team had to lose, but one side left exuberant in victory and the other departed dignified, but not able to hold back tears in defeat.
The Pioneers advance to Round 2 next week, but will have their work cut out for them on the road at Dudley HS in Greensboro. The 13-1 and #2 seeded Panthers advanced to Round 2 by shocking Alexander Central, 52-8.
Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium was an offensive adrenaline rush (899 yards of total offense) for the estimated 3,000 football fans packing the grandstands, including the largest contingent of visiting supporters this season on the far side.
My players wanted to do it and I wanted to do it. We had to try it.
The lead changed hands five times. The game was tied four times. But the outcome all boiled down to a Southwest Guilford coaching decision to “go for the win” with two minutes remaining and Watauga’s “come up big” defensive execution in snuffing out SWG’s 2-point conversion attempt.
Going for the 2-point conversion to win the game was not a hard decision. The Cowboys were running the ball effectively and Watauga was having trouble tackling. Plus, SWG’s scouting report suggested that Watauga was vulnerable.
“My players wanted to do it and I wanted to do it,” an emotional Southwest Guilford head coach Eric Rainey told Blowing Rock News on the field after the game. “We had to try it. We tried a shovel pass (on the outside). In hindsight, we probably should have run it right up the gut where we had already been successful. In film, we saw the outside (Watauga defender) coming up the field so we gave it a go. But it got cluttered and we didn’t quite get the push from our tackles that we needed.
“I am so extremely proud of my boys,” Rainey said. “They never quit. This is such a strong character group. It looked bleak (when Watauga was ahead by two touchdowns), but we preach to them that you don’t stop until the clock reads zero-zero-zero. Our comeback from being down by 14 points fell short, but that finish is why you play the whole game.”
These same two adversaries played to a three overtime win by Southwest Guilford in the first round of the 2015 playoffs and they appeared headed for a repeat in 2016.
With the score tied 36-36 at the end of the third quarter, Watauga scored on consecutive possessions with Hamilton Castle passes to Byers Carney (12 yards) and Corey Williams (39 yards). That gave the Pioneers a seemingly safe 50-36 lead with 4:35 remaining. It would take at least two possessions for the Cowboys to come back. Improbable? Comfortable? Just say that a certain radio announcer was telling his listeners to make plans for a trip to Greensboro next week.
Coach Habich is an offensive genius. He sees things nobody else does.
Not so fast. After Watauga’s second TD of the 4th quarter (the 39-yard pass from Castle to Williams), Southwest Guilford’s senior running back and return specialist D J Gray wove through the middle and turned up the left sideline for a 78-yard kickoff return. Then on the ensuing onside kick, Watauga fumbled the reception and the Cowboys lassoed the recovery, giving Rainey & Co. a short field with which to tie the game or possibly win — and they made short work of it, driving to a finishing 5-yard scamper by Rainey for the TD.
And then a fateful decision: tie with a PAT kick by a kicker who had made all of his kicks, but seemingly struggled on every one OR try to exploit a perceived Watauga defensive vulnerability and go-for-two to win the game. Well, scouting reports don’t always account for player reactions in the moment.
In the 2-point conversion attempt, things closed up unexpectedly on the right side for Rainey, who reversed direction and, while scrambling back to the left, looped a pass toward an open receiver in the far left corner of the end zone. But there was just enough air under the ball for Williams, playing cornerback for the Watauga defense, to intervene and make the game-saving interception.
“That was a close one,” a smiling Watauga head coach Ryan Habich observed to reporters after speaking with his team. “We made the plays when we needed to. We challenged our kids at halftime to have some grit, some mental toughness to come out there, and that’s how we overcame (adversity).
“We had some bad things happen on special teams,” Habich added. “But our players didn’t give up. They perservered. And that is what you are looking for in high school football: kids that want to do that. I was very proud of the way they finished the game.”
We had to find that grit.
On the final 2-point conversion attempt, Habich recalled, “It looked like a run-pass option, a speed option with a guy going over the middle. Our guys did a good job covering it. They strung him out. Corey Williams made a great play on that interception because they had a receiver open. That’s what it takes to win these close games. You have to have players that step up and make plays.”
Although senior running back Evan Suggs had 243 yards rushing and two TDs while the team had 344 yards of rushing offense, it was not all a bed of roses for Watauga’s run-oriented offensive scheme.
“Southwest Guilford was pretty good upfront (on defense),” Habich said in assessing his team’s performance. “They stopped some of the things that we were doing on their center, so we went to a shotgun running game and that helped us. With a shotgun run we can pull it and throw it or run. That opens things up a bit. We spread them out and ran inside.”
Asked by Blowing Rock News if the 2-point conversion and what appeared to be an early onside kick were designed as statement plays to open things up at the get-go, Habich replied, “Well, the kick (which flew out of bounds) went a little farther than it was supposed to. That 2-point conversion actually came off of a bad snap from center. Hamilton Castle just made a great play (in running around the right side and diving into the end zone). We really weren’t trying for the 2-point conversion at that point.”
Habich was especially complimentary of Southwest Guilford in saying, “They are a good football team and they come from a good conference. We lost a linebacker in practice and here at Watauga we don’t have a lot of depth. We have to move guys around so they are playing different positions. We are kind of thin at linebacker (to begin with), so those guys did a really good job.
It was one of those trick plays we work on in practice.
“Overall, it was a pretty good job by our defense,” noted Habich. “I thought that early on we played a little bit too passive. We didn’t make tackles and we didn’t get off of blocks the way we should have. At halftime, we talked about getting over that hump. We had to find that grit.
“I know that Watauga hasn’t had a lot of success in the playoffs,” Habich admitted, “but to have that success you have to have that grit. You have to make plays. On offense in the second half we made those plays, especially Hamilton Castle. To throw an interception, and then come back and make the throws and lead the offense the way he did…Those kids have grit. As a result we are getting over the hump here at Watauga.”
Although known mostly for its running game, Watauga has an exciting aerial attack, too.
“It was one of those trick plays we work on in practice,” Habich observed in recalling freshman Anderson Castle’s (QB Hamilton’s brother) option pass to WR Corey West in the second quarter for a TD. “We want to run the football, but we want to make big plays in the passing game, too. (Anderson) throws well on the run. That was one of those plays that we thought would be open, and it was. Anderson made a great throw and Corey West made a great catch.”
Suggs’ 243 yards of running the football, augumented by Castle’s and West’s 65 and 36 yards packing the pigskin, respectively, is in large part a credit to the Watauga offensive line.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to be able to run this much against Southwest Guilford.
In speaking with Blowing Rock News outside the Pioneers’ locker room, the deceptively fast Suggs was quick to recognize what those guys in front of him mean to the Watauga rushing attack. “They have their ups and downs like all of us,” Suggs said, “but overall they did a fantastic job. Honestly, I didn’t expect to be able to run this much against Southwest Guilford. Up front, some of those guys were beastly boys, but our offensive line opened up the holes for me to run through.”
Assistant coach Steve Breitenstein, who mentors the Watauga offensive line smiled when asked by Blowing Rock News about his charges’ role in the night’s offensive performance. “It is such an honor for me to coach this offensive line,” said Breitenstein, who is being recognized for his many years of service as an assistant coach at this year’s Shrine Game of the Carolinas, featuring the best players from North Carolina and South Carolina. “My center and two guards are both seniors. I don’t want them to leave, they are such good kids. They needed this win. They needed to be able to play in the second round. They are special kids who are very intelligent. I just don’t want my time with them to end.”
In talking about the game, overall, Breitenstein remarked, “Look at that score, 50-49. That’s a lot of points, but we had to suck it up. A team with lesser character would not have been able to handle that adversity. Our guys were not going to be denied.”
Even after the 2-point conversion attempt by the Cowboys failed, there was still more than two minutes of time left on the clock. To run out the clock, Watauga still had work to do or the Cowboys would get the ball back with a chance to score. They couldn’t afford a miscue, another interception or fumble — and they needed at least one first down.
“We needed that first down,” Breitenstein pointed out. “We had to keep the ball. We had to keep the chains moving.
I have never been so hyped in my life. I am so proud of these boys.
“Coach Habich is an offensive genius,” said Breitenstein. “He really is. He could coach any position on the field extremely well, but he is an offensive genius. He knows exactly what he wants to do and sets it up. I don’t see what he sees. He sees things that nobody else sees, and he sees everything. He sees it all and knows instinctively what to do in all situations. I am really pleased to work with him. It is an honor to work with him. This is a great coaching staff that he has assembled. Everybody contributes.”
For his part, Suggs only comes out of games on kickoffs as he plays running back on offense and strong safety on defense. Defensively, his name pops up frequently as the credited tackler. Asked by Blowing Rock News whether he prefers offense or defense, the 5-11, 210 lb. football “Renaissance Man” says that while he enjoys both, running the ball on offense is special to him. “I’ve been doing it since middle school,” he shared.
Watauga’s victory had large Pioneer crowd still abuzz after the final whistle had sounded.
“I have never been so hyped in my life,” Watauga senior Alden McClure gushed to Blowing Rock News in describing the students’ reaction to their football team advancing. “I am so proud of these boys. We watch them work out here and to see them come out and get this win…I am just so proud and so excited. I can’t wait for the next game!”
- WHS — Hamilton Castle, 11 run (PAT: H. Castle run is good) [8-0]
- SWG — Darien Epps, 3 pass from Jaren Rainey (PAT: Mason Chu kick is good) [8-7]
- WHS — Evan Suggs, 46 run (PAT: Kyran Densham kick is good) [15-7]
- SWG —
Bryson Jumper, 9 run (PAT: Rainey pass is good) [15-15]
- SWG — Bryson Jumper, 22 run (PAT: Chu kick is good) [15-22]
- WHS — Corey West, 40 pass from Anderson Castle (PAT: Densham kick is good) [22-22]
- SWG — Bryson Jumper, 30 run (PAT: Chu kick is good) [22-29]
- WHS — Hamilton Castle, 2 run (PAT: Densham kick is good [29-29]
- WHS — Evan Suggs, 21 run (PAT: Densham kick is good) [36-29]
- SWG — Bryson Jumper, 6 run (PAT: Chu kick is good) [36-36]
- WHS — Byers Carney, 12 pass from H. Castle (PAT: Densham kick is good) [43-36]
- WHS — Cory Williams, 39 pass from H. Castle (PAT: Densham kick is good) [50-36]
- SWG — D.J. Gray, 78-yard kickoff return (PAT: Chu kick is good) [50-43]
- SWG — Jaren Rainey, 5 run (PAT: Rainey pass failed) [50-49]
Rushing (Carries-Net Yards)
- SW Guilford
- Bryson Jumper, 14-119
- D J Gray, 8-30
- Camron Smith, 2-13
- Jaren Rainey, 7-7
- Evan Suggs, 31-243
- Hamilton Castle, 10-65
- Corey West, 10-36
- SW Guilford
- Jaren Rainey, 16-17-1-0
- Hamilton Castle, 8-11-3-2
- Anderson Castle, 1-1-1-0
|avg. per rush||5.4||6.7|
|avg. per play||7.9||8.6|