By David Rogers. November 29, 2019. BOONE, NC — Advancing through the 2019 North Carolina 3AA State Football Championships is a lot like climbing to the top of Mt. Everest from the western shores of the Pacific Ocean. Each successive phase of the mission is more challenging, even daunting — and now the playoffs’ journey becomes even more perilous for Watauga after overcoming regional rival, Winston-Salem based Mt. Tabor, 35-13, Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium.
The game was much much much closer than the score reflects.
COVER IMAGE: Grant Oliver (8) hauls in a first quarter pass from Anderson Castle. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Watauga’s three-headed rushing juggernaut once again prevailed on this clear, if chilly late autumn evening. Senior fullback/B-back Jake Watson plowed through the middle of the Spartan defense for 106 yards on 22 carries, including three touchdowns. Senior wingback and “wildcat” QB Jaiden Bond rushed 12 times for 87 yards. And senior quarterback Anderson Castle advanced the ball 17 times for 82 yards, including 1 TD.
Watson’s block of that PAT was huge.
But this win was far from easy, with many a “statement play” in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams.
Watauga’s opening offensive series was a struggle against Mt. Tabor’s massive defensive front. The Spartans’ coaching brain trust seemed determined to bring the Pioneers’ bruising ground attack to a halt by stacking the box to fill any gaps at the line of scrimmage. And Mt. Tabor’s speed on the perimeter appeared more than capable of stopping Bond, Castle, and junior wingback Sebastian Best on their sweeps to the outside.
Although that first offensive possession ended abruptly on a turnover when Castle’s long pass down the right sideline was intercepted by the Spartans’ defensive back Jabari Slade on the 3-yard line, one play during the drive told the visitors that even their attempts to stop the Watauga running game might prove futile.
That play occurred just before the INT when Watson took the ball up the middle for what appeared to be only for a short gain. But the powerful senior kept his legs churning and churning, eventually emerging from the equivalent of a rugby maul to burst into the open and tote the pigskin 36 yards before being brought down at the Mt. Tabor 23-yard line.
Watauga’s defense made a statement of its own by not allowing the Spartans to capitalize on the turnover. After Mt. Tabor’s junior running back carried the ball 16 yards on the series’ first two plays from scrimmage, Watauga’s defense stiffened, forcing the Spartans to punt.
Three things could happen here and two of those results would be unfavorable for the Pioneers
Seemingly energized by the defensive play, Watauga’s offense ground out a 13-play, 60-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 23-yard “rainbow” aerial from Castle to wide receiver Grant Oliver. The versatile senior collected the ball over his shoulder in full stride down the left sideline (see our cover image) before being pushed out of bounds at the Mt. Tabor 4-yard line. Watson and the Pioneer offensive line did the rest, punching through the middle for three yards, then one yard, for the game’s opening score. Placekicker Carter Everett’s PAT was good, and the Pioneers owned a 7-0 lead with all but 48 seconds gone in the first quarter.
Mt. Tabor couldn’t get anything going in response, the Watauga defense holding them to a three-and-out. But after taking possession at their own 34, the Pioneers couldn’t advance the ball either. To make matters worse, Castle’s punt was partially blocked, recovered by Mt. Tabor at their own 31-yard line.
This time, the visitors from Winston-Salem capitalized on good field position, smartly marching the 69 yards in eight plays. The series included an impressive 23-yard ramble by junior running back B.J. McIntyre, as well as a 23-yard pass by athletic senior QB Jordan Zertuche to speedy sophomore wide receiver Lance Patterson. The pass completion set up a 3-yard Zertuche keeper off of left tackle and into the WHS end zone. With 4:57 remaining in the half, it was a new ball game at 7-7 when Eliott Trinh’s PAT kick sailed through the uprights.
Given a glimpse of what Mt. Tabor was capable of with possession, the Pioneers returned to form with a grinding, clock-consuming rushing attack that kept Tabor’s offense off the field. After getting the ball at their own 35 when Tabor’s kickoff rolled out of bounds, Castle, Bond, Watson & Co. alternated punching through the Spartans’ defensive front for nine plays, getting the ball to the Mt. Tabor 36. On the next play, Castle spurted through a gap 30 yards before being brought down at the TBR 6. Three plays later, Watson powered the remaining five yards for Watauga’s second (and go-ahead) TD with 12 seconds remaining in the half.
Sure, the Pioneers had a 14-7 lead at intermission, but it was tenuous, at best. Coming out of the locker room for the second half, these 3AA West bracket adversaries traded punches and punts, holding each other scoreless for the duration of the third quarter.
The biggest excitement came on a Mt. Tabor punt that Bond uncharacteristically muffed in fielding it, the fumble recovered by the Spartans’ junior linebacker Max U’ren at the Pioneers’ 32. That gave the ball back to Mt. Tabor with even better field position. Watauga’s defense stepped up again to contain the Zertuche-led offense, aided by a bad snap from center that set the Spartans back 22 yards. Although he had been hitting field goals from near midfield in pre-game warmups, Trinh’s 37-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right of the uprights, no good.
The third quarter ended with Mt. Tabor threatening, with 3rd and 1 at the Watauga 13-yard line. Going into the final stanza, Zertuche got the first down with a 5-yard keeper, then McIntyre finished off the drive with an 8-yard run.
Habich gambled — and it paid off.
As Trinh stepped back for the PAT kick, it appeared that in a matter of seconds the game would be tied again, this time at 14-14. The snap was good. The hold was good. The kick was solid. But somehow Watauga’s Watson was able to jump through the Spartan offensive line and get a hand on it, slapping it down. The score remained: Watauga 14, Mt. Tabor 13.
That single-digit difference brought new life to the Watauga grandstands and energized the Pioneer sideline — and on both sides of the ball Bond appeared determined to make up for his third quarter gaffe.
After a 42-yard run by Bond on the second play of Watauga’s next series took the ball to the Spartan 13, Watson pushed through the line for 11 yards and, one play later, Castle scored from two yards out.
There was still almost 10 minutes left in the game, so the Pioneers’ 8-point advantage (21-13) still looked tenuous. But a revved up Watauga defense, as well as an offensive holding penalty on Mt. Tabor that set the Spartans back 10 yards, forced a three-and-out — giving the ball back to the Watauga ball hogs.
Enter: “Riverboat Ryan Habich.”
The Spartans knew they had to get the ball back. The Pioneers knew they had to take time off the clock and keep Mt. Tabor’s offense off the field. If possible, a Watauga TD or field goal would make it a two-score game, meaning the visitors would need more than a TD and a 2-point conversion.
In its first three plays, Watauga’s offense only managed nine yards, leaving a 4th-and-1 decision on their own 43. Three things could happen here, and two of the potential results were unfavorable for the Pioneers. Punt and you give the ball back to that talented Mt. Tabor offense. If you go for the first down and don’t get it, you give the ball back to Mt. Tabor’s offense with a very short field. If they subsequently scored and were successful on a 2-point conversion attempt, the game would again be tied, 21-21.
Habich gambled that the “go for it” option could get one yard. Not a problem. On a keeper, Castle got three yards to extend the Pioneer offensive possession with still 5:37 left on the clock.
The rest of the offensive series included a couple of third-down conversions, highlighted by a 37-yard run by a determined Bond, to the Mt. Tabor 6. Three plays later, the Pioneers had the Spartans right where they wanted them, with 1:09 left on the clock, 4th-and-1. Make the one yard and score a TD and you make it next to impossible for Mt. Tabor to mount a comeback rally, two scores down. Fail, and you turn the ball over to the Spartans with 99 yards to go and just over half of a minute to do it in. And even if Tabor was to score a TD, they still needed a 2-point conversion to tie and send the game into probable overtime.
But with 36 seconds, Watson dove across the goal line for not only the 4th down conversion, but the TD, too. Everett’s PAT kick was good, making it 28-13.
As the Pioneer faithful began to celebrate and make plans for a trip to Weddington next Friday for the West bracket finals and the right to advance to the NC 3AA title game, a Zertuche pass was alertly intercepted by Watauga linebacker Eli Towle. The Pioneer senior ran the ball back into the end zone for a “pick six” and Everett’s PAT kick made for the final winning margin, 35-13.
Climbing NC Football’s Mt. Everest
In the opening stages of the 2019 high school football season, Watauga galloped through what amounted to football “coastal plains” and “flatlands.” Except for an early September loss to 4AA powerhouse Ronald Reagan HS (Pfafftown, NC), the Pioneers didn’t just defeat opponents. They pummeled them with scores like 50-21 (Asheville-T.C. Roberson), 56-7 (Ashe County), 59-6 (Wilkes Central), and 42-14 (Gastonia-Ashbrook).
This year, we can get hit in the face and keep battling back.
As they progressed into the 3A/4A Northwestern Conference schedule, the Pioneers continued to “breeze” through opponents: 56-12 (South Caldwell), 42-10 (Alexander Central), 56-28 (Hickory), 67-14 (St. Stephens) and 62-14 (McDowell). It wasn’t until the November 1st league finale in Morganton, NC against Freedom that Watauga was remotely challenged, but the Pioneers still emerged victorious, 48-33.
Storming into the presumably more challenging “Piedmont” of their assault on Mt. Everest — the first two rounds of the state playoffs — Watauga still rampaged past Waxhaw-Cuthbertson (61-21) and Kannapolis-A L Brown (55-27), treating them as little more than mosquito bites along their way to the summit of North Carolina high school football.
But standing in the way of reaching Base Camp for their final assault on NC football’s equivalent of Mt. Everest was Mt. Tabor, which finished the regular season in a 3-way tie for first place in the highly competitive, Piedmont Triad 3A Conference. Against their co-league champions, the Spartans had edged Greensboro powerhouse Dudley, 21-20, but lost to Parkland in a defensive stalemate, 6-0. Two years earlier, in 2017, Mt. Tabor eliminated a scrappy, but young and outmanned Watauga side, 21-14.
“Mt. Tabor had a very good game plan and they beat us upfront,” admitted Habich in speaking with reporters after the game, “but our kids found ways to be successful in all three phases of the game…Our kids willed a way to win this game.”
Speaking of Bond’s performance, Habich observed, “I don’t think we blocked that great, to be honest with you, but Jaiden doesn’t need much room. They had so many people at the line of scrimmage and we weren’t moving them at all. We had to find a crease (for him)…”
Habich was also quick to praise Bond’s resilience.
“…Jaiden fumbled that punt,” Habich recalled. “Two years ago (if he had done that), I would have had to take him out of the game. (Now) he was able to respond in a positive way. He played lights out after he fumbled that punt. He came back after that adversity. You know, I often tell our kids that it isn’t whether you get hit by adversity, but how you respond to it. Our team responded excellent tonight. When challenged, they did not back down. They kept going.
“That defense (Mt. Tabor’s),” Habich added, “is one of the top defenses in the state, at any level, but we found a way to move the ball and score when we needed to. Our players did a great job executing. Even though we were outmanned up front, our kids found a way to score enough points to win this game.”
Offensive performance wasn’t the only thing on the head mentor’s mind.
“Hats off also to our defense,” Habich continued. “This was a total team effort: offense, defense and special teams.”
Watson was a force all night and Mt. Tabor was unable to stop him with any kind of consistency. His block of the PAT, in particular, was a momentum changer.
“The block of that PAT (kick) was huge,” noted Habich. “It put them behind the scoreboard. But (rushing) he was getting that hard yardage. They were taking the quarterback (keepers) away and we could not get a good surge up front to give (Castle) enough room to run, so we had to get the ball to the fullback more. He had to get those hard yards. They weren’t very big holes to run through, but our kids found a way to make it manageable…With this offense, a lot of times it is a four-down offense.”
Man, those guys have been in the weight room.
Compared to the team that played Mt. Tabor in the playoffs at the end of the 2017 regular season, the 2019 edition of the Pioneers is bigger, more confident, and stronger.
“Of the guys that played that year, we had a couple of guys move away,” said Habich. “And of course Bryce Satterfield (who played in 2017 as a sophomore) is hurt this year. We had eight sophomores playing on varsity for that game. They were good players as sophomores, but they didn’t have the mettle and emotional toughness to play in a tight game like that. This year, we do. We can get hit in the face and keep battling back.
“The difference is in the maturity the players and that they are a lot stronger,” Habich reflected. “The coach from Mt. Tabor tonight recognized it. He said later, ‘Man, those guys have been in the weight room.’ So that says a lot about our kids and how hard they work…”
All of that hard work has paid off, now with a chance to play in the West bracket final and one step removed from a berth in the North Carolina 3AA state championship game. To reach the pinnacle, they’ll first have to go through Weddington, in Matthews (southeast of Charlotte) next Friday, with a 7:30 pm kickoff.
At 14-0, Weddington is the top-ranked 3A team in the state, besting Charlotte Catholic and Marvin Ridge for the Southern Carolina 3A Conference title. That is a conference that sent six teams to the state playoffs, including Cuthbertson, Watauga’s victim in the playoffs’ first round.
Blowing Rock Newshound “Players of the Game”
- OFFENSE: Jake Watson (strong performance in getting the tough yards on the ground), Jaiden Bond (busted loose for multiple long runs)
- DEFENSE: Eli Towle (key tackles, INT), Anderson Castle (key tackles to prevent long scoring plays)
- SPECIAL TEAMS: Jake Watson (blocked PAT stopped Mt. Tabor momentum in the 4th quarter)
SELECTED TEAM STATS (compiled by Jonathan Watson)
- Total Offense: WAT 315, TBR 172
- Passing: WAT 33, TBR 54
- Rushing: WAT 282, TBR 118
- Penalties: WAT 0-0, TBR 3-30
- Turnovers: WAT 2, TBR 0
- Fumbles-Lost: WAT 1-1, TBR 1-0
- Interceptions Thrown: WAT 1, TBR 1
- Time of Possession: WAT 29:10, TBR 18:41
- 3rd Down Conversions: WAT 4/12 (33%), TBR 3/9 (33%)
- 4th Down Conversions: WAT 5/5 (100%), TBR 0/0
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- TBR — Jorden Zertuche 6-of-12, 54 yards, 1 INT
- WAT — Anderson Castle 2-of-4, 33 yards, 1 INT
- WAT — Jake Watson: 22 carries, 106 yards, 3 TDs
- TBR — B J McIntyre: 17 carries, 100 yards, 1 TD
- WAT — Jaiden Bond: 12 carries, 87 yards
- WAT — Anderson Castle: 17 carries, 82 yards, 1 TD
- TBR — Amar Aikens: 7 carries, 27 yards
- TBR — Jorden Zertuche: 2 carries, 8 yards, 1 TD
- WAT — Sebastian Best: 2 carries, 7 yards
- WAT — Grant Oliver: 2 catches, 33 yards
- TBR — Lance Patterson: 3 catches, 33 yards
- TBR — Rahkem Roberts: 2 catches, 19 yards