The rock outside Wallace Shelton Stadium was painted with the words “Ring Chasin’” back in August, before the Mount Airy football team embarked on its memorable 2016 campaign.
Now the rings are just two wins away from the claws of the Granite Bears.
Mount Airy advanced to its first West Regional final since 2009 on Friday night, leading from wire to wire in a 38-12 victory over Whiteville in the third round of the NCHSAA 1AA state playoffs. The Bears, now 13-1 on the season, scored on their opening drive in the first quarter and never trailed in what became the final home game for 13 Mount Airy seniors.
The Bears will hit the road for the first time in the postseason next week, when they travel to West Montgomery, the champions of the Yadkin Valley Conference, on Dec. 9 with a spot in the state championship game on the line. The Warriors (14-0) held off county rival East Montgomery 23-20 on Friday night to punch their ticket to the regional final.
In Whiteville, Mount Airy faced a different set of challenges than it had in earlier games. Although the Wolfpack’s offense is similar to Surry Central and Walkertown, two teams the Bears beat handily earlier this season, those teams only had exceptional athleticism at a few spots. The Wolfpack’s 8-5 record belied the fact that every team they lost to, and a few they beat, had reached at least the second round of the playoffs, and Whiteville had size up front and speed to burn. If there was one thing Mount Airy had to be thankful for, it was that they got to face the Wolfpack in last year’s playoffs — as a team that actually plays in the East, few West teams know much about them.
“They had a little bit of speed,” said Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder. “And it wasn’t in just one or two places. They had speed in a lot of places, and I thought we did a really good job.”
The Bears’ coaching staff stressed that their defense had to be disciplined against Whiteville’s option attack, and the message got through. The defense induced the Wolfpack into a three-and-out to start the game, and then the Mount Airy offense went to work, driving 47 yards in eight plays to open the game with a touchdown. Big plays on the series included a 24-yard run by Malik Frost that netted a first-and-goal at the Whiteville 7-yard line, and then the touchdown itself, where the Bears acted like they were running a reverse with Ian Holder. However, right as he turned toward the end zone, Holder threw on the run back to the guy who started the whole play, quarterback Jackson Smith. Smith had snuck into the end zone and was wide open for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 6:03 left in the opening quarter.
The Wolfpack tried to respond quickly, and running back Jamario Norton found a weak spot in the defense, rumbling for 19 and then 41 yards on back-to-back plays to give his team a first down at the Mount Airy 11. However, the Bears’ defensive front stiffened, and on third-and-16, quarterback Monchovia Gaffney was forced to pass. He tried a fade route into the corner of the end zone, where Kiante Webb and Donovan Greene both went up for the ball. Greene made a great catch on the ball — but unfortunately for Whiteville, Greene wears navy blue and white.
Mount Airy’s defense continued to give the Wolfpack fits. Later in the quarter, Whiteville’s Phillip Powell ran a punt back to the Bears’ 36, but on the team’s first play from scrimmage, they forced a fumble and Greyson Tucker pounced on it for Mount Airy. That turnover led to a nine-play, 67-yard drive that saw Smith and Holder hook up again, but this time with Smith as the thrower and Holder as the catcher, after 75 seconds of the second quarter. The 13-yard strike came a few plays after Frost had opened the period with a 23-yard run for a first down at the Wolfpack 19.
The visitors then mounted their most impressive drive of the game to that point, eating up over six minutes on a march that carried them from their own 25 all the way to a first-and-goal at the Bears’ 6-yard line. Again, Mount Airy’s defense made a stand with its backs to the the goal line, and after three plays, it was fourth down with the ball just inside the 5. The Wolfpack called time-out, then ran the ball again and ran into a host of Bears, led by Trey Simmons, at the line of scrimmage.
Coach Holder felt that was when his team took control of the game.
“I thought stopping them there was huge,” Holder said. “I don’t know that a lot of people would see that, but they were marching it down the field, and going into halftime 17-0 instead of 14-7 is a really big difference. That stand, and then our marching it the other way and kicking a field goal was huge for us.
Just 3:54 remained on the clock in the first half, and things didn’t look good after a bobbled snap and a penalty made it second-and-25 from the 2-yard line. But Jackson completed passes to Frost and then Greene, giving his team a first down at the 34. Two plays later, Holder hauled in a pass for 38 yards and a first down at the Whiteville 23. With 67 seconds left in the first half, the drive bogged down, but Robert Brown drilled a 39-yard field goal that would have been good from 45, and Mount Airy led 17-0 at intermission.
“He can kick it from there; he made field goals from 42 and 44 last year, and he hit a few from 47 in warm-ups,” said Holder.
The Bears opened the second half with a methodical 13-play, 83-yard drive that ticked away the first seven minutes of the third quarter while extending the lead to 24-0 on a three-yard run by Frost with 4:59 left. However, Whiteville finally got its offense untracked and responded with a score of their own, albeit a time-consuming one that probably hurt the Wolfpack’s cause as much as it helped. The 77-yard march ate up the rest of the third quarter and didn’t end until Keshawn Bellamy crashed in from the 1 with just 10:47 left in the contest. Then the Bears stuffed a try for two points to leave the score at 24-6.
Any realistic hope of a Whiteville comeback ended a few minutes later. The Wolfpack’s defense held in a third-down situation in Mount Airy territory, and the Bears were preparing to punt when Whiteville elected to accept a holding penalty that moved the ball back to the 22-yard line, but also gave the home team its down back. Smith and Holder made them pay, by hooking up on a 78-yard catch-and-run play that made it 31-6 with 8:48 remaining.
The Bears’ defense made its only serious mistake of the night moments later, when a wide-open Bradley Pridgen took a Gaffney pass 68 yards for a score, but another try for two points was stuffed, and then Mount Airy drove 86 yards for its final score of the night, culminating in a 22-yard run by Holder out of the Wildcat with 4:03 to play.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.