The East Surry and Mount Airy football teams come into their rivalry showdown in Pilot Mountain having experienced very different seasons in 2015.
The senior-laden Cardinals are undefeated, ranked in the top-five of almost every state poll, and looking to stake their claim as one of the best teams in school history. In contrast, the Granite Bears are filled with youth this year, and they’ve encountered a roller-coaster season filled with ups and downs.
However, despite the different paths to the regular season finale, both East Surry (10-0, 5-0) and Mount Airy (7-3, 4-1) still have all of their goals in front of them, and the two teams will fight for a Northwest Conference championship for the third consecutive season on Friday night.
“That’s one good thing about coaching at Mount Airy and East Surry,” Bears’ coach Kelly Holder said. “You’re pretty much playing for a conference championship every year. That’s our number one goal every year, and it’s nice to finish the season with this game.”
Mount Airy had an opportunity to make this week’s matchup a do-or-die championship bout for both teams, but the Granite Bears struggled in all three phases during a 35-7 loss to Walkertown last week .
Instead, a Mount Airy win would presumably clinch a three-way tie with East Surry and Walkertown for the conference title, but a Cardinal victory would make East Surry the outright Northwest champions and a potential top-seed in the upcoming 1A NCHSAA playoffs.
Despite the troubles in Winston-Salem against the Wolfpack, Coach Holder is confident in his team’s ability to bounce back and use the Walkertown loss as motivation.
“We hope the loss hurt a little bit, but it doesn’t take a lot to get focused for East Surry. We’ve liked (the energy) and we’ve been pretty focused this week,” Holder said.
If Mount Airy wants to derail East Surry’s perfect season, Coach Holder is going to need more production from an offense that only produced 41 yards and zero completions in the first half last week.
At first, he was filling a void due to injury, but junior Malik Frost is now the staple of Mount Airy’s backfield and will start his fifth career game at running back this Friday. He’s rushed for 733 yards on just 81 carries and has provided a nice spark to the Bear offense.
East Surry coach David Diamont knows that limiting Frost will be the key to his defense’s success against Mount Airy, and he’s noted the Bears’ ability to cope with injuries this season.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way Kelly and his staff have made adjustments,” Diamont said. “Not many teams can lose their running back first game of the season and have the type of success that they’ve had.”
One adjustment Coach Holder knows his offense will need to make is its ability to cope with a defense focused on shutting down the run. The Bears’ quarterback will need to find wide receivers Donovan Greene and Kenyon Smith to alleviate the pressure on Frost coming out of the backfield.
If Mount Airy can’t find success through the air, linebacker Staymon Johnson and the rest of the Cardinal defense will pin their ears back and look to stop the run. Johnson leads his team with 85 tackles, followed by Shawn Creed (71) and Chris Cosgrove (57).
On the other side of the ball, East Surry’s prolific offense will look to keep things rolling against a normally dominant Mount Airy defense. The Bears did give up a season-high 35 points last week, but the defense spent too much time on the field to impose its will.
Still, Mount Airy will be faced with a stern test against the Cardinal offense. East Surry has scored at least 35 points in every game this season and is coming off a 49-0 victory over North Stokes last week.
Quarterback Tyler Smith leads the Cardinal attack with his 1,866 passing yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s been the beneficiary this season of an offense filled with playmakers like Joey Ray (819 rushing yards) and Blake Marion (968 receiving yards).
“They’re not averaging 45 points for no reason,” Holder said. “They’re going to throw it to (Marion) regardless, but they’ve got plenty other people who can catch it… They’ve got the total package.”
Statistically though, this is the best defense East Surry has faced all season. Linebackers Cameron Pack (83 tackles), Cooper Orange (65), Clayton Cogdill (63) and defensive lineman Gabriel King (60) lead a Mount Airy defense that is only allowing 13 points per game.
Defensive backs Ian Holder, Chance Sizemore, Greene and Frost will be faced with the tough task of slowing down the East Surry aerial onslaught.
The Bears have also forced 15 turnovers through their 10 games this year, but East Surry is primarily focused on keeping its offensive train churning.
“We have all season long concentrated on what we need to improve, more than what the other team offers,” Diamont said. “We’ve tried to coach this game the same way. We’ve worked on us, and without being overly concerned with an opposing team’s offense, defense or scheme.”
Both schools have already begun to sell tickets with the anticipation of a packed stadium in Pilot Mountain. This will be the 50th edition of East Surry-Mount Airy football, and Coach Diamont knows both sides of the rivalry.
Diamont went 4-1 against the Cardinals in a brief five-year stint as the head coach at Mount Airy. During his two tenures as the Cardinals’ leader, Diamont is 12-18 versus the Bears.
The East Surry coach is excited for the emotions that will come on Friday night, and he knows all too well this is a unique experience in Surry Country football.
“If you are a supporter of Mount Airy athletics or East Surry athletics, and when we play each other you don’t get excited, you need to move to another country,” Diamont said. “It’s been one of the special Friday nights I’ve coached in.”
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16