By David Rogers. WELCOME, N.C. — After carving out an emotional, big win over 4A rival A C Reynolds in Asheville a week ago, there was bound to be a Watauga “letdown” this week.
Not so with the 2023 edition of the Pioneers, who bludgeoned the Black Knights of North Davidson on Sept. 15, 56-14, and it might not have been that close.
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Watauga didn’t need an equine steed, a lance, or even the steel mail armor that protected the knights of old to defeat the Black Knights. No, the white-knighted Pioneers won the day with well-executed skill and outright grit. They entered the arena with a purpose and completed the mission.
By halftime, the High Country visitors to Palmer Field crafted a 36-7 lead. In the first two quarters of play, quarterback Maddox Greene amassed 307 total yards — 8 carries for 181 yards and 2 TDs, as well as a perfect 5-for-5 passing for 126 yards and a TD.
On the other end of those first half passes? Senior wide receiver Jackson Pryor had caught three of them for 92 yards, capped by a 39-yard TD catch-and-run.
And more than an afterthought was running back Everett Gryder’s 15 carries for 85 yards and 2 TDs.
In fact, once Gryder dove across the goal line after an 18-yard jaunt to finish the Pioneers’ opening possession, the game was all but decided when North Davidson followed up with a 4-and-out, turnover on downs. On the first play from scrimmage upon Watauga taking possession for the second time, Greene raced 52 yards on a QB keeper over left tackle, weaving his way through and past would-be defenders until pushed out of bounds at the Black Knights’ 1-yard line. Greene’s yeoman effort got the ball close, then it was Gryder who plunged across the middle for his second TD — and the jousting had barely begun, barely midway in the first quarter.
The last time the Black Knights and the Pioneers faced each other was in 2014’s first round of the state playoffs. It was Watauga head coach Ryan Habich’s second year at the helm, and he took his then 8-3 Pioneers to the Lexington suburb of Welcome, N.C. — and hardly felt welcome at all after the Black Knights administered a 52-14 drubbing.
After the more recent 56-14 shellacking, Habich was asked about keeping the team adequately motivated following the big win last week at A C Reynolds, which came down to Trathon Gragg’s dramatic stopping of the Rockets’ 2-point conversion attempt in the waning moments of the game.
Now in his eleventh year as the Pioneers’ head coach, Habich said he recalled for his players the 2014 score, a time when today’s Pioneers were not that far removed from diapers.
He also cautioned them about what can happen after a big rivalry win, the aforementioned letdown. Habich told them of what happened in 2017. They took a 4-0 non-conference record into conference play and walloped 4A rival, South Caldwell, 48-7, but then traveled to Alexander Central and lost to the Cougars, 38-33, in under-peforming fashion. They followed that up with an emotional, “big win” over longtime rival Hickory in a shootout, 49-42, but then lost on the road to lowly St. Stephens, which had only won two games to that point in the 2017 season vs. five losses.
“We watched film of that game this past week,” said Habich.
Second Half Foibles
The second half started promising enough for North Davidson. After receiving the kickoff, senior quarterback Payton McMillan completed passes of 11- and 7-yards to a pair of junior wide receivers, Ryan Forrest and Damani Chhorn, respectively.
But then the wheels came off of the Black Knights’ offensive chariot when Watauga’s Evan Burroughs stepped in front of a long McMillan pass and returned it 60 yards for a “pick 6” touchdown. With Jack Wilson’s successful PAT kick, the score was 42-7, which also meant the Pioneers needed just seven more points to trigger North Carolina’s “mercy rule” (a running clock for the rest of the game).
Burroughs effectively pulled that trigger just moments later when he intercepted yet another McMillan pass and returned it 45 yards before being tackled out of bounds at the North Davidson 20-yardline. After a big gain by teammate Ben Gosky put the ball at the ND 3-yardline, Burroughs got a chance to finish the job he had started, carrying the ball the final three yards for the TD. Another Wilson PAT kick, and the mercy rule was on, 49-7, with still roughly five minutes to go in the third quarter.
At that point, Habich and his staff got an opportunity to develop roster depth by inserting numerous reserves and even some young faces from the junior varsity, including Kyle Williams and Matthew Leon, as well as backup QB Matthew Habich taking the reins of the Pioneer offense.
A highlight of the fourth quarter was when senior reserve linebacker Andrew Ward picked off a North Davidson pass and returned the INT 55 yards to the Black Knights’ 10-yardline. The icing on the proverbial cake was Ward lining up on offense as wingback and getting the carry around the left side for the final Watauga TD.
One of the key, if unheralded performances of the night was by placekicker Jack Wilson, who was a perfect 8-for-8 in PAT kicks. His booming boots were all straight and true and his skill may well be needed as the Pioneers into Northwestern Conference play, should a field goal be needed.
Having started the 2023 campaign undefeated at 5-0, including three straight tough road wins, Watauga now has a bye week before facing South Caldwell and Alexander Central at home, respectively, on Sept. 29 and Oct. 6.
SELECTED TEAM STATS
- Total Offense: WAT 422, ND 62
- Passing Yards: WAT 126, ND 52
- Rushing Yards: WAT 296, ND 10
- First Downs: WAT 19, ND 4
- 3rd Down Conversions: WAT 3-3, ND 1-4
- 4th Down Conversions: WAT 0-0, ND 0-1
- INTs thrown: WAT 0, ND 3
- Fumbles Lost: WAT 1, ND 1
- Penalties: WAT 3-25, ND 1-15
SELECTED INDIVIDUAL WATAUGA STATS
Maddox Greene (307 total yards, 3 TDs)
- 5-of-5, 126 yards, 1 TD
- 9 carries, 181 yards, 2 TDs
- 2 INTs, 1 defensive TD
- 5 carries, 33 yards, 1 TD
- 15 carries, 85 yards, 2 TDs