By David Rogers. August 9, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — When it comes to preparing for THIS season, last year’s undefeated Northwestern Conference championship and all of the accolades for going deep into the State playoffs don’t matter one bit.
COVER IMAGE: Senior QB Anderson Castle will again lead the Pioneers. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
To accomplish the team’s goal of winning another conference championship, Watauga High School head coach Ryan Habich explained to his players after Thursday morning’s practice, “We have to be a good football team and we’re not there yet.”
After reminding the 2019 edition of the Watauga Pioneers that the previous six years of winning football teams had a certain chemistry and the understanding of individual players who knew and bought into their respective roles on the team, Habich told them, “We lost some good players from last year (to graduation). This preseason training camp is about THIS group of players and coaches, you guys here now, discovering that chemistry and learning your roles…What we have done before just puts a target on our back. Now teams are gunning to beat Watauga.”
Watching more than two hours of a Thursday morning practice will give Pioneer football fans encouragement that Habich & Co. has not lost any gridiron mojo. They have the student athletes working hard, building what the Pioneers’ chief mentor calls, a “foundation” for game day success.
I really wanted to play my senior year with the guys I have played with the last three years.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
Just before preseason training camp started, Watauga’s hopes got a boost with the surprise re-enrollment of versatile running back, Bryce Satterfield, who for the spring semester had moved north to Louisville, Kentucky, with his family. His father, former Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield was hired as the new head coach of the University of Louisville Cardinals, an important step in the senior Satterfield’s professional coaching career. He moves to the Power 5 level, and with a member school of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Satterfields enrolled Alli (volleyball), Isaac (football) and Bryce (football and track) in Christian Academy of Louisville (CAL).
But after playing three seasons of Pioneer football, Bryce’s heart was still with his teammates in Boone.
“I really wanted to play my senior year with the guys I have played with the last three years,” Satterfield admitted to Blowing Rock News after Thursday’s practice. “And my parents embraced the idea.”
“We had already made plans to move forward without Bryce, with Jake Watson our lead B-Back,” Habich noted. “So his mother moving back to help him finish his senior year here was a pleasant surprise. Bryce gives us more depth, on both offense and defense, and we can use him at different positions.
“He didn’t go through our summer weight training and conditioning program so he has a lot of work to do to get in shape, but he is doing it. He has done a good job and getting better every day. We’re going to use him at both B-back, as well as wingback on offense. He gives us another weapon and adds to our versatility.”
You MUST Have A Good O-Line
Habich was quick to acknowledge assistant coach Steve Breitenstein and what he has done with the offensive line through the years.
We have some big name skill players returning, but we are not yet a complete football team.
“Coach Breitenstein has done a very good job coaching the offensive line,” Habich said. “To be very good offensively, you have to have a good offensive line. We are a downhill running football team so we have to get (with it). I think we have the potential to be the best offensive line we have had at Watauga since I have been here. We have not only potential, but size and athletic ability. We have five guys — two of them are still learning what to do — but when they get it figure out we could be pretty good up front. The biggest challenge for us is to find two or three more linemen that can play. We like to go into the season with seven or eight linemen that can play.
“Grant Lawrence at right tackle has a ton of potential,” Habich observed. “And he is only a sophomore. He is still working with things to learn, but the varsity experience he had as a freshman will pay off for us. We expect him not to just be good, but to be an impact player for us, both offensively and defensively.
Seniors Taking Ownership
Behind what Habich describes as maybe Watauga’s biggest and most athletic offensive line in recent years, the Pioneers have offensive weapons aplenty, and most of them are veteran seniors.
“Jake Watson is a really good player,” said Habich. “We’ll modify our offense a little bit because he doesn’t do the same things as Bryce (at the B-back position). With Bryce back, we can do a lot of the same stuff (as last year), but we can also move him outside and use him on the perimeter, and use Jake on the inside. But then we can also bring Bryce to B-back and use Jake at tight end and H-back. They give us versatility. And on defense, Bryce can play some linebacker so Jake can be well-rested on defense as well.”
With size and ability, this has the potential to be the best offensive line since I have been here — but we have a lot of work to do.
Senior wingback Jaiden Bond is also taking snaps under center as the backup quarterback to fellow senior Anderson Castle, who last week finished second in the Northwestern Conference media balloting for Preseason Player of the Year. From the 16-member panel that includes Blowing Rock News, Castle garnered five first place votes, behind Freedom quarterback Jayden Birchfield’s eight first place votes. Satterfield finished third in the poll, with two first place votes, while Hickory’s Cody Young picked up the final nod.
In addition to Bond, Satterfield, and Watson, Castle will have playmaking receiver Grant Oliver, as well as maturing Mitchell Greene as outside and downfield targets.
Youth Movement – Again
Adding to Habich’s cautionary optimism this year (and beyond) is a freshman class that is 25 in number to start the season.
“At 25, this is our biggest freshman class, at least since I have been here,” Habich noted. “And there is some real talent there.”
Habich shared that each year he and his coaches go through a phase of learning what their players do well.
“We’ll run basically the same offensive schemes,” he said, “but we will also adapt to what our players can do well.”
With two scrimmages and five non-conference games, the coaching staff has ample time for their players to prove themselves and show what they can do before the conference schedule ratchets up the level of competition.
Saturday (August 10) will be the beginning of real play against live opposition, with a 10:00 am scrimmage at Maiden High School. They will follow that up with what is penciled in as a “Jamboree” scrimmage, 6:00 pm, at least tentatively scheduled for Kidd-Brewer Stadium, on the evening of August 15th. The regular season opener will be at home against Asheville-TC Roberson, 7:30 pm.
When you look at what we have accomplished, we have won more football games by ‘a lot’ than any other team in our conference. That, and that we have some good skill players coming back is what the media guys are looking at.
Of the media’s preseason poll that projects Watauga as again finishing atop the 8-team 3A/4A Northwestern Conference, Habich was understandably dimissive.
“That really is more of a reflection on the guys who players here from 2013 through 2018,” Habich said, now in his seventh year as the head mentor for Pioneer football. “When you look at what those teams accomplished, we have won more football games by ‘a lot’ than any team in our conference. The media guys are looking at that and the fact that we have some big name skill players coming back for another year, guys like Jaiden Bond, Anderson Castle, Bryce Satterfield…but for us that means nothing. We are not the same football team as last year. We do have some big name players coming back, but we have to work more on being a complete team.”
Looking at the other teams in the conference, Habich gave some props to his rival coaches.
“There are some really good coaches and coaching staffs in the Northwestern Conference,” he said. “Freedom, Alexander Central, and Hickory are the three obvious teams that you expect as a challenge, but then we have St. Stephens down there again and they beat us at their place two years ago. It cost us a conference championship.
“Alexander Central has a ton of kids, a ton of size, and a ton of speed,” Habich pointed out. “I think they have won something like 100 JV games, so they have a lot of depth. Freedom has a lot of talent. They have a really good quarterback and skill players. Then you have Hickory, which is a bit of a wild card. They have an abundance of talent and are improving in recent years. They are a candidate for the conference championship, too.”
Media Preseason Poll:
- Watauga 102 points, 8 first place votes
- Freedom 96, 5 first place votes
- Alexander Central 89, 3 first place votes
- Hickory 60
- St. Stephens 39
- South Caldwell 36
- McDowell 27
Media Voters Included:
- Paul Schenkel (Morganton News Herald)
- Justin Epley (Morganton News Herald)
- Marty Queen (McDowell News)
- Dan Crawley (McDowell News)
- Van McKinney (McDowell Radio)
- Jeff Link (Foothills Radio)
- David Jones (Foothills Radio)
- Steve Behr (Watauga Democrat)
- Mike Kelly (WATA Radio)
- David Rogers (Blowing Rock News)
- Donny Pennell (The Taylorsville Times)
- Rick Gilbert (WACB Radio)
- Chris Hobbs (Hobbs Daily Report)
- Jason Savage (WHKY Radio)
- Davis Fisher (Lenoir News-Topic)
- Josh McKinney (Hickory Daily Record)