By David Rogers. BOONE, N.C. — If you hadn’t been at Jack Groce Stadium on Oct. 14 and only saw that Hibriten controlled the football for 28:33 while Watauga had possession for just 19:27, you might suspect that the Panthers won a grinding high school football game. That would prove way off target as the Pioneers rolled to a 55-7 win over the visiting Panthers — and it wasn’t even that close.
Just about everyone in the stadium, or at least on the sidelines and in the press box, knew that Hibriten was going to be without at least seven starters, including not just the starting quarterback but the Panthers’ top backup. So the question of the night was: how deep is the Hibriten roster and could they keep up with what has emerged as Watauga’s multi-faceted offense.
Answer: a resounding “no.”
There were a number of big plays by the Pioneers in the first two quarters of the football game, perhaps none any more emblematic of the night than a second quarter series when Watauga already had a 34-0 lead, with just 1:34 remaining before intermission. A freshman quarterback thrust into a starting role, on 2nd-and-10 Hibriten’s Avin Crawford ran right on an apparent option play. He was hit at the line of scrimmage while attempting a pitchout to a halfback — and the ball instead flew awry and was plucked from the air by Pioneer junior linebacker Morgan Henry in stride, headed to the end zone. The Blowing Rock School alum outraced all defenders for a fumble recovery TD. With a successful PAT attempt by Grant Kight, the Pioneers had a commanding, 41-0 lead with 1:01 left before halftime.
Among the many regulations governing North Carolina high school football, one of them is a “mercy rule” that when any opponent is ahead by 42 points in the second half, the clock continues to run, without stopping, shortening what has become an onslaught. Following Henry’s fumble recovery TD and with just over a minute left on the clock in the opening half, Watauga was one point shy of the 42-point trigger. It appeared that the mercy rule would have to wait until the second half.
But after successive, incomplete passes by Hibriten on 2nd, 3rd and 4th downs, Watauga got the ball back its own 34-yard line with 10 seconds to go before the end of the second quarter. And that was just enough for senior running back Will Curtis to bounce out to the right side, wrestle free from a would-be tackler and sprint down the sideline 66 yards for yet another Pioneer TD. The score insured that the second half would be played with a running clock.
Without question, on this night the Pioneer defense took every advantage of its created opportunities. In addition to Henry’s fumble return for TD, defensive back Cole Horine had a “Pick 6” pass interception late in the first quarter. On 2nd and 10, the ball at Watauga’s 28-yard line, Hibriten’s Crawford spotted wide receiver Chase Trivette briefly open near the 15, but Horine jumped in front of it and sprinted right, turning upfield near the Panthers’ sideline and outraced all defenders the length of the field for the touchdown, putting Watauga ahead, 20-0.
Just a half minute ahead of Henry’s fumble recovery for TD, Horine capped off a big night with a 26-yard TD pass from sophomore QB Maddox Greene.
Noteworthy on the night was the unencumbered return of wingback Trey Thompson, who suffered an early season upper body injury. On a counter play off right tackle that he described later as his favorite play, Thompson shot through a gap opened up by the offensive line at the Panthers’ 22, broke into the second level and no one could catch him before crossing the goal line without a Hibriten player within 15 yards of him.
Offensively, Curtis carried the ball 13 times for the Pioneers, rolling up 125 yards rushing, including two more TDs, giving him 16 on the season while averaging more than 110 yards rushing per game for the eight contests so far in 2022. Thompson carried the seven times for 67 yards, including the TD scamper.
Greene mixed things up on the night, completing 3-of-5 passes for 56 yards through the air, including the Horine TD reception. Greene also rushed 7 times for 28 yards, getting the ball across the goal line once on the ground for a TD.
Knowing in advance that Hibriten might be shorthanded, Watauga head coach Ryan Habich said afterwards that it still had to be business as usual for his Pioneers.
“We played at our level. We talked about it, that they were shorthanded. They have a very dynamic quarterback that did not play and a backup quarterback-receiver that did not play, either. So they had some guys out,” said Habich. “I think we did a good job — not great — executing, but that is what we want to do. We want to give perfect effort regardless of the game circumstances, even when we have our backups in… (In a situation like this) you want to play your game. That’s how you get upset. You want to play at a high level, especially in that first half. If you get up, like we did, then you have a chance to play everyone on the sideline. In the second half with the clock running, we played a lot of guys.
“Our coaches are coaching them up, how to tackle, tackle low, not missing tackles, because we need to rely on those guys,” added Habich. “Things change in the course of a game. Sometimes you have starters that go out and you have new guys going in. We lost a few (offensive and defensive) backups that were playing on special teams, due to injury. We had to play a lot of guys tonight, and some of them in positions they hadn’t played or practiced in before. It is good to be able to play a lot of kids in a game like this. The important thing is that even with them having some guys out, we played at our level and did not make this a close game. We kept our foot on the gas pedal and going forward.”
Of Crawford, Hibriten’s freshman QB for the night, Habich had a lot of praise.
“I thought he did really good, getting thrown into the action after being pulled up from the JVs because the Hibriten QB had a high ankle sprain. He showed a lot of potential,” said Habich. “But our defensive line is pretty good with guys like Isaiah Shirley. We did a pretty good job against the option. Hibriten did a good job of keeping the ball away from us at times, but in the end we found ways to make plays.”
Habich had special praise for his defense.
“Cole Horine had the Pick 6. He read it good and taking it to the house was a big play. And Morgan Henry at outside linebacker, playing the option… Our guys were playing responsibility football. Whether starters or backups, they were in position to make plays. When your defense makes big plays like that, it helps out your offense, big time,” said Habich.
Isaiah Shirley becomes third Pioneer since 2016 to be selected for Shrine Bowl
Now in his 10th year as head coach of the Watauga program, Habich was quick to applaud the recent selection of Isaiah Shirley to play in the Carolinas’ Shrine Bowl Game.
“This makes the third player that Watauga has had in the Shrine Bowl since 2017,” said Habich, “after Josh Hedley in 2017 and Anderson Castle in 2019. I got to coach in the 2016 game and it is a special game. They take the top 44 players in North Carolina, so we feel very blessed to have a player selected.”
After the game, the NC State-committed Shirley told High Country Sports that he was honored, “But I am very thankful for my teammates and coaches who helped me develop. I am excited for the chance and think it will be fun.”
Two more Northwestern Conference matchups stand between Watauga and an undefeated league title, an Oct. 21, “Senior Night” home game against always dangerous Freedom and a road contest at regional rival Ashe County to close out the regular season on Oct. 28.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offense – WAT 373, HIB 224
- Passing – WAT 3/5/56, HIB 6/18/70
- Rushing – WAT 35/317, HIB 29/154
- Penalties – WAT 5/55, HIB 5/30
- Turnovers – WAT 0, HIB 2
- Time of Possession – WAT 19:27, HIB 28:33
- 3rd Down Conversions – WAT 5/6 (83%), HIB 1/9 (11%)
- 4th Down Conversions – WAT 1/1 (100%), HIB 3/6 (40%)
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL STATS
- HIB Avin Crawford 6/18/70, 0 TDs, 1 INT
- WAT Maddox Greene 3/5/56, 1 TD, 0 INTs
- WAT Will Curtis 13 carries, 125 yards, 2 TDs
- WAT Trey Thompson 7 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
- HIB Gerard Felder 3 carries, 47 yards
- HIB Avin Crawford 7 carries, 40 yards
- WAT Eli Bailey 1 carry, 38 yards, 1 TD
- WAT Maddox Greene 7 carries, 28 yards, 1 TD
- HIB John Patterson 3 carries, 20 yards, 1 TD
- WAT Jackson Pryor 2 catches, 30 yards
- HIB Bryce Horton 2 catches, 30 yards
- WAT Cole Horine 1 catch, 26 yards, 1 TD
- HIB Jake Absher 1 catch, 22 yards
WATAUGA’S INDIVIDUAL DEFENSIVE HIGHLIGHTS
- Carlton Horine 4 tackles
- Cole Horine 3 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 INT
- Morgan Henry 2.5 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 fumble return for TD
- Jackson Pryor 2 tackles, 1 tackle for loss