Championships won’t be decided in the first week of high school football, but all four local teams will get a good look at their potential when the 2016 season kicks off this Friday night.
Highlighting the opening slate of games is a cross-county rivalry bout between East Surry and Surry Central, but Mount Airy and North Surry each have just as intriguing challenges in week one.
The Greyhounds and Bears will take on Ashe County and Starmount, respectively. Both North Surry (2A) and Mount Airy (1A) will look to make statements on the road against teams in the same NCHSAA classification.
Below are capsules of each of the three local games this Friday:
East Surry (13-1 in 2016) at Surry Central (4-7)
East Surry was by far the county’s top team a year ago, but a year ago, the Cardinals were the team loaded with experience. This year, that squad is the Golden Eagles, who will try to knock off their rivals from the other side of the county for the first time in five years.
The Golden Eagles were huge underdogs when the teams met in Pilot Mountain in last year’s season opener, but Central really didn’t give itself a chance — East Surry ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, and three botched punt attempts by the Eagles led to three more Cardinal scores and a 41-7 halftime lead for the host team. East Surry went on to win 48-13. The Cardinals have won four in a row in the series, all by at least three touchdowns, since Central won in both 2010 and 2011.
“Our seniors are old enough that they remember those wins over East Surry,” said Central head coach Monty Southern, “but they weren’t a part of that. It’s certainly in the back of their minds that they’ve never beaten East Surry.”
Past history won’t matter on Friday night, though. While Central’s roster features 17 returning starters and 20 seniors, the East Surry team that will be taking the field is very different from the one that played a year ago.
“We’re really young this year,” said Cardinals head coach David Diamont. “We only have three returning starters on offense and three on the defense. We don’t have a single wide receiver on our varsity who caught a pass last year.”
However, the veteran East Surry coach isn’t crying poverty. The Cardinals will be ready to play.
“We’ve had a great effort by all our kids, they’ve done all we’ve asked them to,” he said. “We’re tired of practicing and ready to play someone. We rode the bus for nine hours over three days scrimmaging last week and we’re ready to play.”
Diamont said that his team squared off with Central in some 7-on-7 scrimmages over the summer and that he believes this is “the best Central team we’ve played in quite a while.”
His counterpart with the Eagles agreed that it was time for his kids to get on the field and hit someone in a real game.
“We got stuck inside, practicing in the gym with no power tonight,” said Southern, whose team’s practice was interrupted by a Wednesday evening thunderstorm. “You never know how the kids are going to respond until they get on the field for their first game, but come Friday, we’ll be ready to go. We’re excited to get the season started.”
John Cate will be covering this game for The News. Follow him on twitter for updates @johncate73.
Mount Airy (8-5) at Starmount (7-5)
The Bears and Rams opened 2015 with a defensive slug-fest as Mount Airy prevailed with a 14-2 victory to start the year. The struggles on offense was a sign of things to come for both squads as they labored on the offensive side of the ball against quality competition throughout the season.
However, there are plenty of reasons for optimism that Mount Airy could feature a potent offense this season, starting with the change at quarterback. Ian Holder, last year’s starter for the Bears, has moved to wide receiver this fall and provided the Bears with an extra weapon on the outside.
Taking over for Holder under center is Jackson Smith, who started the final three games of the last year’s season for Mount Airy. If the Bears are going to score more points in the opener, Smith will need to lead his team into the end zone and not waste opportunities when they arise.
“We want to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers,” Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder said. “Jackson is getting better every day in practice and that has us excited for what he can do on Friday nights.”
Still, the running game will continue to be the focal point of Mount Airy’s offense, and a key matchup in Friday’s battle with Starmount. The Bears rushed for a pedestrian 128 yards on 40 carries in the win over the Rams last year.
Malik Frost shined with 1,109 yards and 11 touchdowns last season after spending the early weeks as a wide receiver, and he could help Mount Airy find some more success against Starmount this season. Frost is questionable for Friday’s game with an injury, but senior Sean Evans is back after getting hurt in last year’s opening contest and ready to lead the backfield if necessary.
“We’ve got to control the running game on both sides of the ball,” Coach Holder said. “If we can run the ball successfully and stop Starmount from running it, we’re going to have a great chance to be the winning team.”
Stopping the Rams ground and pound attack out of the Wing-T formation could be a difficult task. Starmount’s top-three rushers from 2015 graduated in June, but a bevy of experience returns in the form of Brendon Eads, Peyton Mullins and Silas Holbrook. The three backs combined to average six yards per carry last year.
Linemen Gabriel King, JJ Wheeler and Ryan Edwards are three of the Granite Bears who will be responsible with trying to help Mount Airy win the game in the trenches. The Bears had success last year, limiting Starmount to 181 total yards.
Jackson Fuller will be covering this game for the The News. Follow him on twitter for updates @jacksonfuller16.
North Surry (7-5) at Ashe County (6-6)
The Greyhounds debuted their Air Raid offense against Ashe County with some mixed results last season. North Surry threw for 310 yards and rushed for an additional 93, but the Hounds didn’t find the end zone as many times as they would have liked in a 26-14 win.
North Surry coach Danny Lyons hopes his team gets off to a faster start on Friday night.
“We had a couple interceptions and I just think it was the first game in a new system for the guys last year,” Lyons said. “Hopefully things go a little smoother this time around.”
Avery Smith will look to get his 2016 season started on the right foot after winning the Western Piedmont Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season. With weapons like Reid Stanley, Chase Chandler and Casey Hull at receiver and running back Andrew Smith returning, North Surry’s offense could put on a show against Ashe County in week one.
But a lot of the offense’s success will come down which group of linemen plays better on Friday. It will be the first varsity game for over half of North Surry’s starters on the offensive line, and the Huskies have a talented group of big-men in their own right. North Surry’s Dustin Young and Ryan Eldridge are the two returning starters who will look to lead the unit.
“The battle up front is going to be huge for us,” Lyons said. “We’re going to start four juniors and they are going to have to be ready to get up to game speed pretty quickly. I think they know they have a challenge this week.”
On the other side of the ball, North Surry’s defensive line will look to create pressure against a very familiar offense. Ashe County also loves to throw the football, and Huskies quarterback Colin Ellis is the Mountain Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year according to a coaches poll conducted by NCpreps.com.
When Ellis isn’t looking for open receivers, he’s handing the ball off to bruising tailback Skye Sullivan. Similar to the Greyhounds, Ashe County’s pass-happy offense isn’t afraid to find some balance. If North Surry is going to come out victorious, the Greyhounds are going to need to make life difficult for the Huskies in early-down situations.
“Winning first down is going to be key,” Coach Lyons said. “We have to find a way to get that offense out of rhythm and playing from behind. It should be an exciting, long game. Both teams are going to try and pass the ball 40 times.”