By David Rogers. September 2, 2016. BOONE, NC — Watauga High School’s camouflage-clad student section was in good form Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium. When the nearly 200-strong sang a lusty rendition of “Happy Birthday” to friend and classmate Evan Suggs as he walked onto to the field for the captains’ coin toss, the senior smiled, but didn’t turn around. His back still turned, a quick and quiet fistpump as he walked toward the waiting referees at midfield was his only acknowledgement, but it was enough for the teeming throng in the grandstands — and only just the beginning of his celebration.
COVER IMAGE: Suggs turns the corner on a big birthday celebration Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Few men get to come of age with the flair of Suggs on this Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium. The newly minted, now eligible-to-vote 18-year-old rambled for 241 yards and five touchdowns on just 16 carries for the Watauga, leading the Pioneers to a decisive, 55-21 win over the visiting Avery Vikings. Presidential hopefuls Trump and Clinton could only dream of better “running” mates.
“We have to win bragging rights for the High Country,” head coach Ryan Habich told reporters afterwards, and the Pioneers did just that in completing a High Country sweep after dismantling Ashe County a week ago, 78-48, when Suggs ran for 317 yards and six TDs.
Trump and Clinton could only hope for better running mates.
With Suggs and fellow senior RB Corey West, the early season Pioneers have rolled up football real estate faster than an Oklahoma land rush. West, who rambled for 314 all-purpose yards in the Pioneers’ opening game vs. Alexander Central, rushed for 207 last week vs. Ashe County, including a 65-yard TD-scoring thriller from scrimmage. Against Avery County, his number was only called six time to run with the ball — but he scored TDs on a third of those carries while gaining 43 yards.
Somewhat overshadowed by Suggs’ big night on the ground: West caught 4 passes or 55 yards and a receiving TD — and returned his only kickoff opportunity 85 yards.
When it comes to being “Renaissance men,” the Pioneers were dominant, Suggs adding a 5-yard interception return to his rushing total for 246 all-purpose yards, with West close on his heels with 183 yards.
Suggs lit some birthday candles on defense, too. In just his second game playing linebacker, he led Watauga with 6 solo tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, and one interception. He spent so much time in the Vikings’ backfield, Avery County head coach Jason Phelps undoubtedly considered adopting him.
Watauga made their statement of High Country dominance early and often. The Pioneers won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half, so Avery County was blessed with the first offensive possession. Although Watauga’s opening kickoff only traveled 24 yards, the defense added another 6 when Suggs sacked the Vikings QB Christian Hicks on the games opening play.
If anyone can be critical of Watauga’s performance against Avery County, it is that they lifted their foot off the defensive pedal and became a bit complacent as the game evolved into a runaway.
Without the offensive line, I would be dead. Perhaps even quite literally.
After Suggs (3) and West (2) combined for five of their seven rushing TDs with still nearly five minutes remaining in the first half to lead 34-0, Watauga fell asleep at the switch. West had just scored on a 19-yeard TD run. AC’s Hicks returned the ensuing kickoff to the visitors’ 15 yard line, but the Vikings were flagged for an illegal block in the back, pushing them back to start the drive from their own 5-yard line. Perhaps overconfident by their first half dominance, the Pioneers seemed to roll out a red carpet on the first play of the drive for Avery’s Steven Sanchez. The junior running back bobbed and weaved and sprinted 95 yards, bursting into the open off of right tackle before cutting back left and down the northern sideline to light up Avery County’s half of the scoreboard for the first time.
Then, invigorated by their accomplishment, the Vikings executed perfectly with an onside kick, catching Watauga offguard and denying the Pioneers another possession.
It didn’t take long for the Evan Suggs Show to return with another highlight reel-worthy play, however. After Avery County failed to convert on 4th down and 6 from the Watauga 24, the home team took over possession on downs. Suggs responded with a 69 yard run in which he was prevented from scoring only by a shoelace tackle by AC’s outside linebacker, Blake Williams. The Viking junior chased the game’s leading rusher down from across the field to make the stop, but Suggs made up the shortfall just one play later with a 7-yard TD burst.
We like where we’re at, but we are not satisfied.
After Watauga’s QB Hamilton Castle completed a 21-yard TD pass to West, the Pioneers took a “safe” 48-7 lead into the locker room for intermission.
Watauga added only one more TD in the second half, a 5-yard run by Suggs. Avery County added two more on 38- and 7-yard passes from Hicks to wide receiver Brett Smith in mop-up time.
Both West and Suggs were quick to credit the Pioneers’ offensive line for their successful exploits on the ground. “Without the offensive line,” Suggs noted, “I would be dead. And maybe quite literally.”
Habich also commended his offensive line’s play, noting that it is one of the Pioneers’ more experienced units.
“We like where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied,” Habich admitted to reporters on the field after the game. We’re (striving) to get better each week on that side of the ball, as well as with our defense.” He added that there are a lot of areas to “fine tune” on special teams.
After a disappointing, if exciting season-opening loss at Alexander Central and two bloodlust runaway wins to win bragging rights in the High Country, Watauga has a more daunting challenge next week with an away game in Asheville vs. 4AA powerhouse, A.C. Reynolds.