It’s West Regional finals time again. Only this time, it’ll be in the Granite City.
Mount Airy reached the regional final for the second consecutive season on Friday night, cruising to a 38-16 victory over once-beaten Bessemer City to once again stand just one victory away from a trip to the 1AA state championship game.
Mount Airy (13-0), which outgained Bessemer 404-279 on the night, hosts Murphy next Friday night at Wallace Shelton Stadium. The Bulldogs, who won the 1A state championship last year, reached the regional round with a 49-27 victory over East Surry.
Friday night’s contest against the Southern Piedmont 1A co-champions played to a similar script as last week’s playoff opener against Polk County. The Bears built a 28-0 lead by halftime and scored twice in the third quarter, then pulled in the horns and played out the string with the reserves. The Yellow Jackets (11-2) scored twice and made a pair of two-point conversions in the fourth quarter to avert the shutout.
Mount Airy was ready to play from the start. The Bears won the toss and deferred to the visitors, who took the ball first, got one first down, but then bogged down near midfield. Bessemer punted the ball to Mount Airy’s 21-yard line.
On the Bears’ third play from scrimmage, quarterback Ian Holder went deep and found Grayson Corbin for 50 yards and a first down at the Jackets’ 15. On the next play, Holder ran the option to his left, pitched the ball to Jeremiah Rosser, and watched him sail into the end zone with 6:46 left in the opening period.
Things got a bit sloppy after that. The Bears’ defense forced a three-and-out, but then Holder fumbled it back to Bessemer City on first down. But the Yellow Jackets also weren’t doing a good job of protecting the ball, and they gave it right back to Shelton on a fumble of their own three players later.
Starting from its 28, Mount Airy reached the 44 on back-to-back runs by Holder, who was eager to redeem his previous miscue. On the Bears’ third play from scrimmage, Johnathon Smith got the ball and appeared stopped after about a 10-yard gain, but he broke free from the Bessemer defense and took it to the house for a 56-yard score and a 14-0 lead with 2:47 left in the first.
The Jackets weren’t done being overly generous. They coughed up the ball again on second down and Benjamin Reales recovered for the Bears at the Bessemer 30-yard line.
Mount Airy responded to the gift by sending Donavon Greene to the post, where Holder hit him in stride racing across the middle of the field. Greene took it into the end zone and the Bears had two touchdowns in 50 seconds — and a 21-0 lead with 1:57 still remaining in the opening quarter.
Mount Airy went for the quick KO, stopping Bessemer in three plays and forcing the Yellow Jackets to punt again, but the visitors answered back with a strong defensive effort that culminated in one of their defenders stripping Smith of the ball.
Greene soon got the ball back in the hands of the Bears’ offense by intercepting Bessemer quarterback Bruce Gunter at the Mount Airy 35-yard line, but a penalty forced Mount Airy to punt after it had crossed midfield.
At this point, the Yellow Jackets had their best chance to get back into the game. Holder had pooch-punted Bessemer down its own 3-yard line, but the visitors picked up a first down and then finally hit a big play of their own, with Gunter finding Korbien Hill open streaking down the middle of the field for a 67-yard gain down to the Mount Airy 20. The only thing that saved a touchdown was that Greene ran him down from behind.
Two runs by Gunter moved Bessemer to a first-and-goal at the Mount Airy 9, but the Bears’ defense wasn’t done fighting back. On second down, the Mount Airy defensive line whipped the Jackets at the line of scrimmage and forced Gunter into a bad pitchout, which teammate Zavion Williams was lucky to recover for a 12-yard loss back to the 18. Now Bessemer was in an obvious passing situation, and both teams knew it.
Gunter dropped back, looked for a man, and missed sight of Greene. Unfortunately for him, Greene hadn’t missed sight of anything. He picked the ball off at the 12, went to his right looking for blockers, and found them. Once he got around the corner, no one from the Yellow Jackets was catching him on what became an 88-yard pick-six play and a 28-0 lead with 3:07 left before intermission.
As they had the previous week, the Bears took little time in putting things away at the start of the second half. Mount Airy chose to receive to begin the third quarter, and Rosser foiled Bessemer City’s onside-kick attempt. On the Bears’ second play from scrimmage, Holder ran for 46 yards and a first down at the Yellow Jackets’ 14. Smith got the rest on the next play, dragging several defenders with him into the end zone for a 35-0 lead after just 86 seconds of play in the second half.
The sophomore running back ended the game with 162 yards on 13 carries.
Mount Airy’s second series of the third quarter also produced points. The Bears’ defense forced three-and-out, and then Holder ran for 23 yards into Bessemer City territory. Rosser kept the drive alive with a catch on third down, moving the ball to the 20. From there, the Yellow Jackets defense, hoping to avert a mercy rule loss, stiffened and forced Mount Airy to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Brown with 3:45 left in the period.
The Mount Airy coaches decided not to force the issue on the running clock. Holder, who completed nine of 13 passes for 120 yards and also ran for 101 yards on 11 carries, came out on the Bears’ next series, and most of the other offensive starters soon followed. The Bears subbed in the reserve defense with the lead at 38-0, as well.
Williams broke the shutout with a 65-yard touchdown run against the Mount Airy backups with 8:02 remaining. Bessemer City scored a second touchdown with 53 seconds to play for the final margin. By this time, the Bears were already thinking about Murphy.
The Bulldogs (12-2) were the tri-champions of the Smoky Mount Conference this season, with their only losses coming to 2A Franklin (28-21) and to league rival Swain County (29-27). The two schools have not met since the 2006 season, when the Bears beat a 6-5 Murphy team 42-20 in the first round. The year prior, the Bulldogs had beaten Mount Airy 27-14 in the second round. Those are the only two meetings between the schools during the Kelly Holder era at MAHS, although longtime Murphy head coach David Gentry had previously faced the Bears under other coaches.
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