Mount Airy and West Montgomery are no strangers to deep runs in the NCHSAA state playoffs.
While this the first appearance in the West Regional finals for the Granite Bears since 2009, Friday night’s game will be the 29th postseason game played by Coach Kelly Holder’s program during the past 10 seasons. As for the Warriors, they have played at least 13 games in every season since 2005. Their records in the last four seasons have been 14-2, 12-2, 12-1 and this year’s 14-0 slate. That latter record is no fluke.
“They’re very explosive on offense, and they get after it on defense,” said Holder. “They are similar to us in that they have a nice mix of young talent and veterans. There’s a reason they’re still playing.”
In the postseason, each team was the top seed in its respective half of the 1AA West bracket. Their respective season results tell a tale of dominance, with the only exception being the Bears’ lone hiccup in the regular-season finale against rival East Surry — a defeat that Mount Airy paid back with interest in the second round of the playoffs, a 49-6 revenge victory over the Cardinals. The closest that West Montgomery has come to losing a game this season was also against an arch-rival. The Warriors routed county rival East Montgomery 50-7 on the same night that the Bears were stunned by East Surry. However, East Montgomery earned a rematch with West last Friday, and the Warriors had to hold on for a 23-20 victory in which East outgained them and probably would have won the game if not for both a kickoff return and a punt return touchdown by senior Jo Leake.
It goes without saying that Leake is one key player that the Bears have to contain if they want to return to the state finals for the first time in seven years. In the rematch with East Montgomery, Leake had more return yards (191) as his team had total offense (182), and 94 of those 182 came on 15 carries by Leake himself.
According to Holder, the entire West Montgomery special teams unit is a serious challenge for any opponent the Warriors might face.
“I feel like the special teams is really what makes them click,” he said. “Any time you kick it deep to that team, you’re playing with danger. They’ve also blocked a lot of kicks this season, and that’s something else you have to watch for.”
Stylistically, West Montgomery uses a form of spread offense that is in vogue in recent years, but the Warriors are more like an Eastern team in that they run the ball far more than they throw it. West has run the ball 362 times and only had 147 passing attempts this season; against their county rivals last week, they threw just three passes.
Leake, a 5’9”, 160-pound senior, is the main weapon. He leads the team with 1,396 yards on just 112 carries, for an average of 12.5. Sophomore Damon Rhone (5’10”, 174) also gets the call a lot, with 1,126 yards on 126 carries for an 8.9 average. Junior Mychail Horne, who plays a role for the Warriors similar to that of Ian Holder for the Bears, has 379 yards on 19 carries, 74 yards on eight receptions, and has also thrown two passes, completing both of them for a total of 62 yards.
Holder mentioned Leake and Rhone in particular as serious threats coming out of the backfield.
“Offensively, they’re like Whiteville (the Bears’ opponent last week), actually, but just better,” he said. “They’ll spread it around some, but they’ll also sometimes line up with two backs in the backfield. (Leake) and (Rhone) are both really good athletes.”
West Montgomery’s main signal-caller is senior Jackson Dozier (6’0”, 170), who has completed 85 of 145 passes for 1,520 yards and 21 touchdowns.
On defense, Holder expects the Warriors will try to match up with Mount Airy man for man, and that the Bears will have to throw the ball effectively to keep the pressure off the running game.
“They switch a lot, but even if they show zone, their defense works on man principles,” said Holder. “I expect they will put as many in the box as they can, and try to make us throw it.”
The numbers show that the defense is able to cause problems for teams in the passing game. West Montgomery has 41 sacks this season, led by 14 from 6’1”, 200-pound junior defensive end Jataviun Leake. The Warriors also have 20 interceptions on the season.
Surprisingly for two teams that have experienced so much success in recent years, meetings between the Bears and Warriors have been quite rare. The two schools have either landed in separate subdivisions of the 1A playoffs or in different regions, and the only meeting since 2004 occurred in the second round of the 2012 postseason, when the 11-1 Bears defeated an uncharacteristically weak West Montgomery team 52-14. Obviously, no one who played that night will be on the field tonight.
NCPreps had not issued a favorite in the game by press time, but the game is part of a stellar final weekend before the state finals. West Montgomery is the state’s second-ranked 1A team according to MaxPreps.com, with the Bears in fifth. The Nos. 1 and 3 teams, defending champ Wallace-Rose Hill and Tarboro, are playing in the 1AA East final to face the winner of this contest. (The Nos. 4 and 6 teams are playing in the ‘small’ 1A West final.)
The winners of the 1AA semifinals play next Friday at 7:35 p.m. at Kenan Stadium.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.