By David Rogers. November 2, 2019. MORGANTON, NC — After 11 straight weeks of football, Watauga’s players and coaches get a week off — and they be smilin’ bigtime after Friday night’s rivalry win over Morganton-Freedom, 48-33.
COVER IMAGE: Watauga (in white) in victory formation vs. Freedom. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
If historians ever look back at this game and study the numbers, one statistic should stand out as a difference-maker — and it has nothing to do with Watauga’s stellar offensive production. No, it is this: Freedom was successful only once in four attempts to convert on fourth down.
Freedom outgained the Pioneers, 392 total yards to 363. Freedom ran 62 plays, to Watauga’s 42. And yet, the Time of Possession was almost dead even: 24:05 for the Pioneers, 23:55 for the Patriots. Each team had two players with more than 100 yards rushing. While Watauga disdained the thought of passing in this game, Freedom completed 10 of 18 passes for 106 yards.
Watauga never trailed in this gridiron contest, but they were tested, to be sure.
The Pioneers won the toss, elected to receive, and promptly slugged their way 80 yards in 11 plays that used up all but 16 seconds of half of the first quarter. Pioneer senior QB Anderson Castle provided big-play bookend runs for the drive, 27 yards around the left side that looked far too easy on the first play from scrimmage, then 13 yards off tackle to garner the game’s first score. Uncharacteristically, placekicker Carter Everett’s PAT attempt flew low and left, leaving sideline photographers and pundits to wonder whether that miss would come back as a post-Halloween haunt for the Pioneers at game’s end.
It was apparent from the outset that the Pioneer strategists planned to keep the ball out of the hands of the Patriots’ athletic playmakers in space. A high, short kickoff to the Freedom 31 yard line was claimed by Patriot junior running back Makhi Spates on a fair catch, and that is where the Morganton hosts began their Senior Night offensive production.
And it appeared that Freedom would counter Watauga’s opening TD with a score of their own, featuring powerfully athletic running back Chase Young. The 5-10, 195 lb. junior carried the ball four consecutive times to start the drive, for 38 yards and into Watauga territory. Then, after getting the ball to the Watauga 29 yard line on a 2-yard keeper by QB Jayden Birchfield, the Pioneer defense stiffened. Young went nowhere on 3rd-and-4. And on the Patriots’ first 4th-down conversion attempt of the night, Birchfield’s pass fluttered incomplete.
Taking over on their own 29, Watauga’s second offensive drive was another “bookender” for Castle. On the first play of the series, he rambled for 36 yards. Four plays later, he punched through a gap in the offensive line for 14 yards and his second TD with just 37 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Just like that, it was a 13-0 Watauga lead — an opening salvo that the Pioneers would treasure in the time ahead.
Keys to the Game
- Watauga defensive stops on 4th down to prevent Freedom from extending its drives
- The Pioneer offensive line opened big gaps in the line of scrimmage for playmakers like Anderson Castle and Jake Watson to run through
- Head coach Ryan Habich chicanery: an early game onside kick that allowed Watauga to get good field position before taking a 20-point lead in just the second quarter
- Special teams and offensive answers for every Freedom attempts to rally and narrow the deficit
If high school football fans in attendance were hoping to see a battle of two front-runners for Northwestern Conference “Player of the Year” honors between Watauga’s Castle and Freedom’s Birchfield, they were rewarded on the Patriots’ next possession. It was a series that featured Freedom’s tall, speedster of a QB, listed at 6-2, 205 lbs. At the end of an 8-play drive that saw Birchfield on “keepers” four times, the senior college prospect burst into space around the right side and outran all Pioneer defenders down the sideline to the endzone. The PAT by senior kicker Onyx Velez was good, and suddenly there was a new ballgame with Watauga leading, but only nervously at 13-7.
Would the Pioneers respond? Yes, and it only took three plays. B-back Jake Watson spurted through a gap off of left tackle, past the Freedom linebackers, and suddenly found himself sprinting the rest of the 60 yards to the end zone.
Coming off the field, one Watauga starter was overheard saying with a smile, “Jake’s been wanting that (breaking for a long TD run) all season, and he finally got it!”
Steve Behr, sports editor for the Watauga Democrat pointedly observed, “Watauga has a fast backfield, but when the slowest guy in that backfield outruns the Freedom secondary, well…”
With the Everett PAT, it was now 20-7, and the Pioneers had a more comfortable, 20-7 lead. Would Freedom respond in kind?
The Patriots didn’t get the chance. “Riverboat Ryan” Habich had some chicanery up his head coaching sleeve.
Onside kicks only rarely happen in the middle of a game, especially in the first half. That’s because they are risky football business. If the ploy fails, the opponent is left with good field position. So more often they are thought of as desperation strategies when a team is behind at the end of a game.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when Watauga’s Everett drilled a short, bounding grubber past a surprised Freedom front-liner — and it was recovered by the Pioneers’ own Orlando Leon for a successful onside kick. Six plays later, Watauga capitalized with a 2-yard plunge through the middle by Watson. Another successful Everett PAT, and the Pioneers owned what appeared to be a dominating, 27-7 lead.
With still lots of time remaining in the first half, even more fireworks were in the offing. First, there was another long TD run by Birchfield of 23 yards, to which Watauga’s Jaiden Bond answered with a 77-yard kickoff return for a TD, down the sideline in front of the Freedom bench to make it 34-14, Watauga’s advantage.
But the Patriots would score one more time before the half, Young, Birchfield & Co. engineering a 9-play, 3-minute-plus scoring drive to again narrow the deficit, to 34-21.
Even after falling behind by at least three scores, 27-7, midway through the second quarter, Freedom couldn’t — or wouldn’t — spell the word, “quit.” The Patriots battled back to close the gap to 34-21 at halftime, then to just seven points on the opening possession of the second half, 34-27. Late game momentum appeared to be on Freedom’s side.
But Watauga always seemed to have an answer, even when threatened with fatigue while having so many players going both ways. The Pioneers dug deep, then even deeper into their athletic souls. If it wasn’t Castle, Bond, and Watson picking up chunks of gridiron real estate from scrimmage, it was Grant Oliver, Mitchell Greene, Orlando Leon, or Mathew Granbow and other Pioneers making key stops on defense — or Sebastian Best returning a kickoff 60 yards to set up good field position for Watauga’s offense.
After the game in the press box, an animated, enthusiastic Habich praised his players for their “grit” in coming back time after time with big play after big play. And his accolades weren’t reserved for only the Freedom game, but for the whole 2019 campaign, even noting that the one loss to 4A powerhouse Reagan High School became part of the lesson plan for what would become the championship Northwestern Conference season.
At the beginning of the 2019 high school football season, many western North Carolina sports observers felt that Watauga repeating as Northwestern Conference champion — much less go undefeated in league play — would go against all odds. After all, the Pioneers lost some key seniors in 2018 to graduation, including critical members of its offensive and defensive lines, as well as playmakers on both sides of the ball. Guys like Jackson Greene, Zach West, Eli Suggs, Sam Sappington, Graham Helton…20 seniors in all, lost to graduation. What was left? Was the team gutted save some remarkable seniors-to-be in Castle, Bond, Oliver, Watson and Bryce Satterfield?
But beyond Watauga’s personnel challenges, Morganton-Freedom was on the rebound with new coaching leadership and many had emerging 3A powerhouse Alexander Central projected as the 2019 NWC champ. And then, when a key player (Satterfield) in the Pioneers’ 2018 championship was lost early-on in 2019 to injury, “…who would’ve thunk it.”
Watauga head coach Ryan Habich and his worthy team of assistants had other ideas, of course: fill the holes on the offensive line with athletic, coachable “trainees” and build around your cadre of senior playmakers. Oh, and with a small roster, have your best athletes play all ways: offense, defense, and special teams.
The vast majority of Watauga’s players enter high school as modestly pudgy, fresh-faced “kids,” by most standards. But after four years of Pioneer football, with spring and summer weight lifting regimens and “Blue Dawn” conditioning under Habich and his staff’s supervision, they emerge as young men. Add in those flashcard acronym messages (WTW – Work to Win; GPE – Give Perfect Effort; TBM – Team Before Me), and they are ready to face all challenges with discipline and even confidence.
Coming up is Watauga’s “bye” week, finally. With West Caldwell dropping out of the Northwestern Conference this year, every other NWC opponent had their bye week just before playing Watauga, so they had two weeks to prepare. Still another obstacle for the Pioneers, but it didn’t matter. They won conference, anyway, going undefeated again in league play.
Whether Watauga ends up a #1 seed or a #2 seed in the upcoming state playoffs is yet to be determined. Rest assured, they will be ready — and even rested, probably chomping at the bit for some action.
Blowing Rock Newshound “Players of the Game”
- OFFENSE: Anderson Castle
- DEFENSE: Orlando Leon
- SPECIAL TEAMS: Carter Everett, Sebastian Best, Jaiden Bond
SELECTED TEAM STATS (Compiled by Jonathan Watson)
- Total Offense — WAT 363, FREE 392
- Rushing Yards — WAT 363, FREE 286
- Passing Yards — WAT 0, FREE 106
- Penalties — WAT 2-10, FREE 2-20
- Turnovers — WAT 0, FREE 0
- Defensive Sacks By — WAT 0, FREE 0
- Time of Possession — WAT 24:05. FREE 23:55
- 3rd Down Conversions — WAT 5/7 (71%), FREE 11/16 (69%)
- 4th Down Conversions — WAT 1/1 (100%), FREE 1/4 (25%)
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- FREE – Jayden Birchfield 10-18, 106 yards, 2 TDs
- WAT – Anderson Castle 0-1
- WAT — Anderson Castle 21-205, 4 TDs
- FREE — Chase Young 27-150, 1 TD
- WAT — Jake Watson 13-143, 2 TDs
- FREE — Jayden Birchfield 17-136, 2 TDs
- WAT — Jaiden Bond 5-22
- WAT — Sebastian Best 1-5
- FREE — Damien Dula 5-45, 2 TDs
- FREE — Desmond Caldwell 3-29
- FREE — Day Day Burgess 1-13
Watauga Defensive Highlights
- Orlando Leon — 8.5 tackles (4 solo), tackle for loss
- Dakota Silver — 5.5 tackles (3 solo)
- Jaiden Bond — 5.0 tackles (2 solo)
- Jake Watson — 5.0 tackles (1 solo)
- Jake Gragg — 5.0 tackles
- Grant Oliver — 4.5 tackles (1 solo)
- Mitchell Greene — 4.0 tackles (2 solo)
- Anderson Castle — 3.5 tackles (1 solo)
- Mathew Granbow — 3.0 tackles
- Eli Towle — 1.5 tackles (1 solo), tackle for loss