The goal this season for the Mount Airy Granite Bears football team was nothing less than a date on Nov. 16 in Kenan Stadium to play for the 1AA state championship.
The next obstacle in their path to such an achievement is a familiar one. When the 12-1 Bears take the field tonight in their third-round playoff game, their opponent, although hailing from the other side of the state, is a team they faced just over a year ago.
Last year, the Bears were the No. 3 team out of the Northwest 1A Conference, and their position earned them a spot in the playoffs, but forced them to make a 222-mile bus ride to Whiteville High School, a team from the eastern Three Rivers 1A/2A that sometimes gets reassigned to the West in order to balance the regions.
In the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Mount Airy traveled to Whiteville and pulled off a 10-6 upset as an underdog against a Wolfpack team that had won a share of its conference title and held the No. 5 seed in the West. The Bears trailed 6-0 at halftime, but took the lead after a Donovan Greene interception gave them a short field to work with early in the second half. Late in the game, a 67-yard run by Malik Frost set up Robert Brown for a 21-yard field goal. Whiteville’s last drive of the game advanced into Bear territory, but the defense got a stop and Mount Airy left town with the upset win.
This year, the shoe is on the other foot, and Whiteville finished third in its conference, while the Bears tied for first place in theirs. Therefore, it’s the Wolfpack’s turn to make the trip to Wallace Shelton Stadium.
“We don’t mind traveling, but we’d rather be at home,” said Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder.
Holder said that Whiteville is much the same as it was a year ago, still running a spread-option offense with a focus on the running game. The trigger-man for last year’s team, Nydir Carr, has moved on to the college ranks, but the Wolfpack found a capable replacement in 6’2”, 210-pound junior Monchovia Gaffney. Last week, Gaffney was knocked out of the game due to injury, and Whiteville (8-5) still rallied for a 13-12 win over Bessemer City, with freshman Ty Ross at the controls.
Regardless of who leads the offense, Holder is more impressed with the Wolfpack offense than he was a year ago.
“They still want to run the football, but they do throw some,” he said. “The quarterback is very athletic and talented, and they’re very similar to last year on offense.”
However, there are some improvements, according to Holder.
“They do a much better job of running the option compared to last year,” he said, citing Surry Central and Walkertown as teams that the Bears faced with a similar style of offense. “We have to be disciplined against a team that likes to run the option.”
Defensively, Whiteville always has a reputation as a tough team to score on, and that hasn’t changed this year, with only 230 points scored on the Wolfpack in 13 games, and some of that was due to some early-season games where the team was still trying to find itself offensively, and the defense couldn’t get off the field.
Whiteville began the season at 3-4 overall, including a one-point loss to North Brunswick in its season opener and then a 43-15 blowout at the hands of a strong East Bladen team that is still playing. After a decisive win over East Bladen and a loss to 3AA West Brunswick, the team entered conference play, where it lost only to South Columbus and Fairmont, the two teams that finished ahead of the Wolfpack. However, Whiteville finished first among the 1A teams in its split league and was therefore treated as a conference champion, earning the No. 2 seed in its eight-team pod. The Wolfpack blasted No. 7 Cherryville 42-7 in the first round before outlasting third-seeded Bessemer by a point last Friday night.
Whoever wins the game will advance to the West Regional final next week, with a spot in Chapel Hill on the line. Both the Bears and Wolfpack will be hoping that third-seeded East Montgomery (12-1) can avenge an earlier loss to top-seeded West Montgomery (13-0) in the other half of the bracket. If West wins, it will host next week’s game regardless of the opponent, but if East wins, either the Bears or the Wolfpack have a higher seed and would host.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.