MT. GILEAD — At one point in Friday night’s West Regional championship game between Mount Airy and West Montgomery in the NCHSAA 1AA state playoffs, the host Warriors’ radio announcer said that their team had literally run into a Bear of an opponent in order to get to Chapel Hill.
Ultimately, the hosts pulled it off, using a 20-yard field goal by Pedro Sustaita with 2:01 remaining to secure a 31-21 victory over the Granite Bears.
But if Mount Airy was going down, they made sure that West Montgomery earned it. Even after the field goal, the Bears’ (13-2) moved inside the Warriors’ 35-yard line on a long pass by quarterback Jackson Smith. The hosts stopped the drive a few plays later, but it was a game that was hard-fought to the end.
The Bears fell behind by two touchdowns twice in the second half, at 21-7 and then at 28-14, but got back into the game both times, the first time on a 32-yard pass from Smith to Donovan Greene with 6:14 left in the third quarter, and then a second time, making it 28-21 with 6:59 to play when Smith bulled his way into the end zone from three yards out.
West Montgomery, which will carry a perfect 15-0 record into next Friday’s state championship game at Kenan Stadium, became the first team this season to score more than three touchdowns on Mount Airy, but it was actually the Warriors’ defense that pushed them over the finish line on a night when neither team would back down from the other. After each of the Bears’ second-half touchdowns, they had a possession with a chance to either tie or take the lead. Both times, the West defense forced Mount Airy to run three plays and then punt the ball away.
The most critical situation came when the Bears began a drive from their own 15-yard line with 5:30 remaining, down 28-21. Mount Airy’s offense went backwards one yard in three plays and the team had to punt the ball to the Warriors, who took over on the’ Bears’ 47 and got a couple of big plays from running back Jo Leake to reach a first-and-goal at the 9. Even though less than three minutes were left in the game, Mount Airy refused to fold, and Trey Simmons got into the backfield on third-and-goal to throw Leake for a loss at the 3. Sustaita finally clinched the win for West with a field goal.
The Bears, who struggled to run the ball against the Warriors’ rugged defensive front throughout the night, came out throwing to open the game. Greene out-leaped a defender for a 22-yard gain on the game’s first play for a first down at the West 47. Two plays later, on a third-and-10, he found Greene again for 27 yards. Smith then called his own number and dragged a pile for 11 yards to a first-and-goal at the 9. Two plays later, he tossed an eight-yard strike to a wide-open Malik Frost in the end zone, and with 9:37 left in the first, the Bears surprised their hosts with an early 7-0 lead.
West Montgomery struck back hard after the opening score. The Warriors scored on each of their next two possessions, getting the better of the Bears’ defensive front and fooling them a few times with misdirection. They tied the game at 7 on a two-yard run by Damon Rhone after a 63-yard scoring march, then held the Bears to a three-and-out on their second series. West’s second series began at its’ 44-yard line and ended quickly, with Jo Leake sprinting 45 yards to paydirt a few plays later. The score gave the Warriors a 14-7 lead with 3:22 left in the opening period.
At this point, both defenses stepped up. Mount Airy moved quickly back into Warrior territory but were halted at the 31 after an interception by Jaivius Morrison. Makel Horne had a long run to carry his team back into the Bears’ end of the field, but then Grayson Corbin intercepted West quarterback Jackson Dozier and ended that threat.
The first half ended with four straight three-and-outs, two by each team, and then West ran out the clock to end the first half up 14-7.
The Warriors began the second half strongly, with Rhone returning the second-half kickoff all the way to his 48. On the next play, Dozier took off down the sideline on a keeper down the Mount Airy 16, and four plays later, Leake darted in from seven yards out to make it 21-7 after just 1:42 of the second half.
But the Bears answers back with a drive of their own, in which the announcer for West had to pay his begrudging, but respectful tribute to them. Three times on a drive that covered 66 yards, Smith completed a pass to convert a third-and-long, first to Greene for 13 yards to the Mount Airy 47, then to Ian Holder for 20 yards and a first down at the Warriors’ 33, and finally, on third-and-9 from the 32, again to Greene for a touchdown, after the Bears had noticed Leake leave the game with an injury (he later returned).
Rhone returned the ensuing kickoff to his 47, but the Warriors were stuffed when Gabriel King got in Dozier’s face on third down and forced a punt. Mount Airy had a chance to tie.
If Mount Airy was Granite-tough, the hosts were steel.
The Bears’ offense went nowhere in three plays. Mount Airy punted it back and King struck again, forcing a fumble on West’s first play from scrimmage. But with the Bears again having a golden opportunity to pull even, the Warriors’ senior linebacker Jake Allen sacked Smith on second down, and Mount Airy ended up punting on fourth-and-18 with two and a half minutes left in the third quarter.
Robert Brown hit a great punt for the Bears and pinned West Montgomery deep in its own territory, but then Dozier made two plays that were even better. On third-and-16 from his own 6, he completed a 33-yard pass to Morrison for a first down. Five plays later, he again broke containment on a keeper and had a 50-yard run down to the Bears’ 1-yard line early in the final quarter. Leake scored on the next play, and it was 28-14 with 11:17 remaining.
Frost finally found some running room on the next series, making two big runs for first downs as the Bears capitalized on a do-or-die 74-yard scoring march that ended on Smith’s short touchdown run. Even though 6:59 remained in the game, the Bears tried to surprise their hosts with an onside kick, which the Warriors barely recovered.
West Montgomery gained just two yards in three snaps and had to punt it back to the Bears, but their defense held on the rest of the way.
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