Only eight 1A teams in the entire state had the honor of putting on the pads and practicing on Thanksgiving Day.
Two of those eight are right here in Surry County, just 12.4 miles apart, and tonight, they’ll each be playing for the right to advance to the West Regional final. Perhaps, against one another.
Mount Airy, as the top seed in the 1A West, puts its perfect 12-0 record on the line at Wallace Shelton Stadium against the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets, the co-champions of the Southern Piedmont 1A Conference. The fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets (11-1) scored late last Friday night to upend Swain County 26-21, while Mount Airy remained unbeaten by rolling up a 42-0 lead against Polk County and then cruising to a 42-20 victory.
Meanwhile, East Surry, which led the Granite Bears after three quarters when the teams played for the Northwest 1A Conference title three weeks ago, has taken care of its own business so far in the postseason. The Cardinals drew the No. 7 seed in the West, held off Starmount 21-14 in the first round with a late touchdown, and then traveled to Ronda last week for a rematch with second-seeded East Wilkes, the top 1A team in the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference. The area’s two “East Cardinals” had met in the season opener, with the Wilkes team winning 36-20. They met again in the second round, and East Wilkes again put up 36 points. However, this time East Surry scored 49, and marched into the quarterfinals and another road trip, this time to Murphy High School.
The Bulldogs, like East Surry, have blown up their half of the draw. While the Mount Airy-Bessemer half of the West bracket was chalk, Murphy (11-2), which shared the Smoky Mountain Conference crown with Cherokee and Swain, received a six seed and had to play in the first round. The Bulldogs, who won the 1A (small) state title a year ago, stomped South Stanly 44-13 in the first round. Last week, they had to travel to North Stanly, the champions of the Yadkin Valley 1A. This one was a shootout in which the host Comets actually led 35-34 with 11 minutes to play, but the Bulldogs responded with a touchdown and then scored late after stopping North Stanly on downs to win 49-35.
The Cardinals (9-4), who enter the game as the state’s seventh-ranked 1A team according to MaxPreps, will be facing the highest-ranked team in the 1AA West field other than Mount Airy; Murphy is ranked fifth. East Surry has the highest strength of schedule of any team in the MaxPreps 1A top 10, but the Bulldogs are second.
As is traditional for Murphy, the Bulldogs employ a balanced offense, throwing for an average of 159 yards per game and running for 241. The attack is triggered by senior quarterback Joey Curry (6’2”, 201), a three-sport standout for Murphy who has thrown for 2,055 yards this season on 122-179 passing with 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He runs an offense that longtime Bulldogs head coach David Gentry describes as a “Wing-T/Spread Wing.”
Four different Murphy running backs have carried the ball for 500 or more yards this season, led by junior Slade McTaggart, with 677 yards on 75 carries. Senior Kadrian McRae (116-655), junior K.J. Allen (84-629) and sophomore Devonte Murray (53-574) are also in the mix.
The Cardinals are much more run-oriented than the Bulldogs, but neither team has been stopped very often this season except by themselves. Murphy has put up 538 points this season and East Surry has racked up 502.
Mount Airy’s opponent, Bessemer City, has had a long series of boom-or-bust cycles over the past several seasons, and was 4-8 just two years ago. However, the Yellow Jackets improved to 9-4 in 2016 and then won their first eight games of this season. They lost 26-14 to conference rival Thomas Jefferson Academy on Oct. 20, but regained a share of the conference title and a first-round playoff bye when Jefferson lost two weeks later. Bessemer City received a difficult second-round playoff assignment in Swain (who, it might be remembered, beat Murphy), but after trailing 21-12 through three quarters of play, rallied with two fourth-quarter scores for a date with the Bears.
The Bears have not faced Bessemer City in the playoffs in 15 years. The last time the teams met was in 2002, when the Yellow Jackets defeated the Bears 30-19 in the first round. They had actually met the year before as well, with Mount Airy a 21-12 winner in the first round.
Bessemer runs the ball most of the time, having thrown just 62 times in a dozen contests this fall, and it’s a last resort when they do. The Yellow Jackets have just 453 yards through the air this season, with five touchdown passes and seven interceptions. The key to stopping this team is to slow down its running attack, which has racked up 3,357 yards this season, and found the end zone 39 times. Junior quarterback Bruce Gunter leads the attack with 893 yards on 180 carries, including 11 scores. Zavion Williams has 676 yards rushing on the year, followed by Jarkevious Love (619), Brandon Gunter (440) and Ronald Summey (283).
When Bessemer does throw the ball, it is almost always in the direction of Williams, who has 12 receptions for 327 yards.
Regardless of the outcome of the East Surry-Murphy game, if the Bears win, they will host the West Regional final next week, and the same is true for the Yellow Jackets.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.