By David Rogers. September 28, 2018. BOONE, NC — Only a few fluffy clouds hung over Jack Groce Stadium Friday night, but thunder and lightning struck early and often — Watauga football style — as the host Pioneers thumped Alexander Central, 35-0.
COVER IMAGE: Watauga’s Jackson Greene rambles around the perimeter. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
The visiting Cougars were favored by many to win the Northwestern Conference and advance deep into the North Carolina 3A state playoffs, but Watauga was hardly intimidated by Alexander Central’s pre-season press clippings. The Pioneers’ dominating performance in all three phases of the game manifested itself right from the get-go.
An opportunistic Watauga special teams unit smelled blood on the opening kickoff when ACHS return specialist Easton Rhoney misplayed the ball in front of his own goal line. A horde of Pioneers swarmed the junior defensive back who doubles as quarterback for the Cougars, tackling Rhoney just inside the five-yard line. With poor field position to start the opening offensive possession, the ACHS offense was unable to dig out of the hole. After three unimpressive attempts against an “amped up” Watauga defense, the Cougars were forced to punt from their own end zone — which gave the Pioneers a short field for their first offensive possession.
Who Are Those Guys?
Watauga’s offense spelled double-trouble for the visiting Cougars. Junior quarterback Anderson Castle began the 2018 season as the Pioneer starting signal-caller, but was injured on the second play from scrimmage in the first game of the season at Asheville-Robeson. Senior backup QB Jackson Greene ably took the helm and guided Watauga undefeated through a four-game non-conference schedule and last week’s Northwestern Conference season opener at 4A contender, South Caldwell, 46-12.
So excuse the Cougars’ confusion when on Watauga’s first play from scrimmage, Castle lined up as quarterback for his first offensive snap since the injury, with Greene spread to near the sideline as a wide receiver. Taking the snap, Castle quickly tossed left to Greene, who had remained behind the line of scrimmage. With the Cougar defensive players converging on him, Greene calmly spotted slot receiver Grant Oliver racing down the sideline and hurled a perfect spiral to his wide-open junior teammate. Oliver almost strolled the remaining 25 yards to the end zone, with desperate ACHS defensive backs trying to recover.
It was an opening pass-pass-catch-and-run to remember. It covered 51 yards, striking fear and uncertainty in the minds of current and future Watauga opponents. They must remember that although Pioneer head coach Ryan Habich favors a run-first offense — and has potent rushing weapons in junior running back Bryce Satterfield, junior wingback Jaiden Bond and senior slot back Zach West, as well as capable runners in Greene and Castle — he is not afraid of using the element of surprise to his advantage when he has the opportunity.
“We have two special players in Jackson Greene and Anderson Castle,” Habich told reporters after the dust had settled on the convincing win. “Offensively, we can use both of them. This was about momentum. We got the (defensive) stop and had really good field position, so we wanted to take that shot. With Jackson out there (who is also a good runner), it is hard to defend.
“We are going to take chances,” Habich added. “We are going to play to win. Our kids know that and our fans know that. It doesn’t always work and sometimes you look foolish, but when you play in big games like this you can’t play passively. Our kids believe they can win, so we want to put them in (opportunistic situations). We felt that we had to take some chances and establish momentum going into this game.”
And that they did. While the Pioneer defense only allowed ACHS one first down in the Cougars’ first three offensive series, the Watauga offense sparkled. On the Pioneers’ second offensive drive, Greene found junior wingback Jaiden Bond across the middle for a 21-yard aerial TD to complete the scoring for the first quarter. Late in the first half, the versatile Greene rambled 21 yards from the wingback position and Kyran Densham added his third PAT kick to give the Pioneers a dominating, 21-0 lead going into intermission.
Placekickers are not usually described as “dynamic,” but Habich had high praise for Densham in talking with reporters after the game. The Pioneer head mentor, now in his sixth year at Watauga, credited Densham’s “big leg” on kickoffs for putting the ball into and through the end zone for touchbacks to not give ACHS’s dangerous runners an opportunity for big returns.
On the other hand, Watauga’s Bond, who sports jersey #21, opened the second half with a 62-yard TD run on the Pioneers’ first play from scrimmage, expanding the hometown team’s advantage to 28-0. Watauga added a final TD in the 4th quarter when Castle pushed through the Cougar defense on a 2-yard keeper.
Satterfield led the Pioneer rushing attack with 145 yards gained on the ground, almost half of the team total of 308 yards of total offense rushing. Greene only completed two of six pass attempts, but they were big ones in that both completions resulted in TDs. A third probable TD pass slipped through the hands of senior tight end Eli Suggs, who found himself all alone on the south side of the field near the ACHS 35-yard line. Despite the offensive miscue, Suggs played a key role in the Pioneer win, leading the defensive effort from his outside linebacker position with 17 total tackles, 11 credited as solo stops.
Turnovers played only a small part in this key Northwestern Conference contest. There were no fumbles and just one interception, a 4th and five INT by Bond with just seven seconds remaining in the first half.
As App State football announcer and analyst Pierre Banks noted to Blowing Rock News as the game was winding down, “With no turnovers, this was just a good ol’ fashioned whuppin’.”
Habich credited defensive coordinator Klay Anderson and his assistants Jason Phelps and Bill Carr with the masterful preparation of the defense and a defensive game plan. “They had a great game plan and did a great job all week in preparing our defense to be in the right spots. Our guys were in the right gaps and our linebackers were sittin’ in the right spots. In our secondary, we used Anderson (Castle) and Jackson (Greene)…
“…We did a lot of work to prepare for this game,” said Habich. “Let’s not forget that Alexander Central averaged 54 points coming into this game. We did a lot of work during our bye week, as well as against South Caldwell to prepare.”
Coming into the weekend, there were four undefeated Northwestern Conference teams and they were playing against each other (Alexander Central at Watauga and Hickory at Morganton-Freedom). Only two survived Friday night’s action with an unblemished conference record, Watauga and Freedom, which manhandled Hickory, 43-22.
Habich, however, was quick to say that in spite of the hard-earned win, his players need to stay hungry and humble, noting that the Pioneers’ next opponent, Hickory, is big, physical and very athletic. In addition, the game will be played on the Red Tornadoes’ home turf, with kickoff slated for 7:30 pm. Meanwhile, Freedom will travel to Taylorsville to take on an Alexander Central team looking for renewed pride after being embarrassed by the Pioneers.