By David Rogers. October 26, 2018. BOONE, NC — Any Nervous Nellies worried about what the 2018 rebirth of Morganton’s Freedom High School football team meant for Watauga’s bid for a Northwestern Conference 3A championship…well, they can rest easy. On a near-wintry night at Jack Groce Stadium, the Pioneers handcuffed the Patriots, 35-16, on Senior Night.
COVER IMAGE: Zach West (3) carries the ball around Watauga’s left side on a jet sweep. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
It was the third year in a row that the Pioneers have dominated Freedom, even if this year’s edition of the rivalry was a bit closer. In 2016 Watauga won, 45-7. Then in 2017, the Pioneers shut out the Patriots, 42-0. Both of those embarrassments were on Freedom’s home field on the western outskirts of Morganton.
This year it looked like Freedom had turned the corner under new head coach Luke Little, who was head coach at Whiteville (2013-2017) and South Stanley (2007-2011). His teams posted a combined 88-55 won-loss record. The former Appalachian State baseball player was named 3 Rivers Conference and Columbus County “Coach of the Year” four times during his six years as Whiteville’s head football coach.
Given that success and Freedom’s 8-1 overall record coming into what for all intents and purposes was the Northwestern Conference championship game in visiting the High Country to play Watauga, the Pioneers’ head coach Ryan Habich had good reason to fret about the outcome of this matchup. In a radio broadcast earlier, he reported to WATA 1450-AM announcer Mike Kelly that after watching tape this year’s edition of the Patriots was much improved over the last two years. He noted that they were bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than the last two years.
After losing 31-21 to 2A powerhouse Shelby in the season opener, Freedom looked the part of a gridiron Renaissance. Before meeting Watauga the Patriots beat eight straight opponents by a combined score of 403-61.
And then they came to Boone and ran into a buzz saw. A scant few days before Halloween, the Patriots saw tricks that stole any treats they might have imagined.
The game started out with both teams hellbent on keeping the opposition’s offense off the field. Watauga received the opening kickoff and used up three and a half minutes in six plays before punting to the Freedom 9-yard line. Freedom answered with an 11-play drive that took a full four minutes off the clock, but then with the goal line in sight, Patriot quarterback Jayden Birchfield tossed a 12-yard strike to wide receiver Christian Fox, but as he turned to run upfield Pioneer defensive back Grant Oliver punched the ball out of Fox’s arms and fell on it for the game’s first turnover, a fumble at the WHS 14-yard line.
Watauga quarterback Anderson Castle may well have solidified himself as a candidate for Northwestern Conference “Player of the Year” or at least “Offensive Player of the Year.” The junior QB had a part in four touchdowns on the night. None was as impactful as his keeper through the line of scrimmage off left tackle on the second play of the Pioneers’ post-fumble possession. Castle darted through a hole fashioned perfectly by his offensive line, wove left, then right, and turned on the afterburners in running 82 yards to the game’s first TD.
The Patriots looked like they might answer, but a long Birchfield pass was intercepted down the middle by an acrobatic Zach West, leaping high into the air to wrestle the ball from the intended Freedom receiver. West came to earth with his feet churning, a long INT return to the Freedom 19-yard line marred only by one of his teammates being flagged for an illegal block in the back at the 25. The 10-yard penalty from the spot of the foul meant that the Pioneers would set up shop for their third offensive possession at the Freedom 35.
The Castle-led Watauga offense made short work of the remaining real estate. Running back Jaiden Bond rambled around end for 33 yards and Castle punched the ball over the goal line two plays later to give the Pioneers a 14-0 lead after Kyran Densham’s successful PAT kick.
Freedom responded with a 10-play, 60-yard drive that culminated with a 4-yard TD run by senior running back Traevon Lytle to narrow the Watauga advantage to a mere seven points and give pause to those Pioneer fans thinking it would be another runaway. The impressive Patriot drive kept Watauga’s offense off the field for the remainder of the first quarter and nearly the first two minutes of the second period.
But this was Watauga’s night. After senior defensive back returned Freedom’s kickoff 16 yards from the Watauga 22, setting up good field position for the Pioneer offense to kickstart another run at paydirt. Five plays later Watauga had moved the ball to the Freedom 28, and it was from that point that Castle found senior wide receiver Eli Suggs coasting into the end zone to re-extend the hosts’ lead.
Both teams’ defensive units stepped up and thwarted the next offensive possessions, but with a little more than a minute left in the half Castle burst through a hole on the right side and rambled 51 yards to the Freedom 9-yard line. After fracturing an arm on the second play of the season against TC Roberson in Asheville, it was as if Castle was making up for lost time when he zipped through the Patriot defense for yet another rushing TD from nine yards out with just 23 seconds remaining before intermission. The half ended with Watauga leading, 28-8.
The second half was dominated by good defense from both sides, each team managing just one more touchdown. Watauga junior running back Bryce Satterfield earned his team-high 14th touchdown rush of the season late in the third quarter and a surely frustrated Freedom offense won a consolation TD with just 18 seconds remaining against what was mostly the Pioneers’ defensive reserves.
The Pioneer win means that Watauga clinched at least a share of the Northwestern Conference championship title for the first time since 2007. A win against winless cellar dweller West Caldwell (0-6 in NWC, 0-10 overall) next weekend in Lenoir to close the regular season would give the Pioneers its first solo conference championship for the first time since 1980, according to the High Country’s walking encyclopedia of all things Watauga football, WATA radio’s Mike Kelly.
For the game, Castle rolled up 182 yards rushing on 14 carries, including three TDs. Satterfield added 95 yards rushing on 19 carries and one TD. Bond contributed 66 yards on the ground, mostly around the perimeter for 66 yards. While he was kept out of the end zone on this occasion, a couple of longer runs established important field position for the Pioneer offense.
Castle only completed 2 of 5 passes for 34 yards, but one of those was the TD aerial to Suggs. He threw one interception.