Legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair has been a topic of conversation in the world of sports due to the release of the ESPN’s recent 30-for-30, “Nature Boy.” Stories from Flair’s near 40-year career were highlighted in the documentary of the man regarded by many as the greatest entertainer in wrestling history.
Though most famous for Woo-ing around the globe as the, “Stylin’, profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of a gun,” another catchphrase of Flair’s has been used universally in sports for decades, that being, “To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man.”
The next opponent for the Mount Airy Granite Bears in their pursuit of a state championship is their toughest yet. In order to compete in the NCHSAA 1AA State Championship game, Mount Airy must go through the defending 1A champions, “The Man,” in Flair’s scenario, Murphy High School.
Both the Mount Airy Bears and Murphy Bulldogs were the top seeds in their respective regions in 2016. Both boasted 10-1 records entering the playoffs.
Mount Airy outscored opponents 133-18 in the first three rounds of the state playoffs before losing to West Montgomery in the 1AA West Regional Finals.
With the exception of a one-point victory over Mountain Island Charter in the third round, Murphy dominated opponents en route to the state final.
The Bulldogs defeated Plymouth to win the 1A state championship by a 15-14 margin.
This marks only the fifth time these teams have faced each other. Since the first meeting in 1996, each team has defeated the other twice.
How did we get here?
Mount Airy (13-0) and Murphy (12-2) have both been scoring machines this season. Mount Airy holds a slim scoring average by a margin of 45.2 to 41.9.
The Bears finished the season with an 11-0 record, 5-0 in the Northwest 1A Conference. Mount Airy defeated all but two opponents by at least 20 points, including four 50+ point victories.
The Bears perfect regular season earned the team a first-round bye. Mount Airy replicated its previous supremacy over tournament opponents this year by defeating Polk County and Bessemer City by 22 points apiece in the second and third rounds.
Murphy had six victories this season in which the team scored at least 48 points.
Now a six seed in 1AA, Murphy put on an offensive display in the first three rounds. The Bulldogs scored 44 points against South Stanly and 49 points against both North Stanly and East Surry.
East Surry is the only common opponent between the two teams. The Bears defeated East 31-21 in the final game of the regular season. Murphy’s 49-27 victory over East Surry set the stage for their current match-up against Mount Airy.
Tale of the Tape
The offensive statistics of these teams are so similar it’s almost scary. Murphy holds the advantage in total yards per game 410.1 to 408.2.
The Bears’ 255.8 YPG rushing narrowly edges the Dogs’ 254.9, while Murphy’s 155.2 YPG passing eclipses Mount Airy’s 152.5.
The similarities continue when looking at each team’s quarterback. Ian Holder has been fantastic for the Granite Bears this season, averaging 137.4 YPG passing with a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 145.9. Murphy’s QB Joey Curry has thrown for 154.1 YPG and has a QBR of 135.9.
Both Holder and Curry average right at two passing touchdowns per game and have thrown fewer than five interceptions on the season.
Holder’s primary target in the air has been Donavon Greene. Greene surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in the Bears’ previous game and has 15 touchdown receptions. No other Bear has more than 300 yards receiving or more than four touchdown receptions.
Curry’s best target this season has been Micah Nelson. Nelson actually has more receptions on the season than Greene; however, Nelson only has 715 yards receiving and nine touchdown receptions.
Two other Bulldogs have more than 300 yards receiving on the season, those being Hagan Newton and Travis Seabolt. Hagan and Seabolt combined for an additional nine touchdown receptions.
Curry has been known to rush when needed, having 32 carries for 145 yards on the year. However, Holder is the second-leading rusher on the Bears with 905 yards on 95 carries. Holder is also second on the Bears with 11 rushing touchdowns.
Similar to the passing game, the ground game of Mount Airy is reliant on a couple of players while Murphy possesses a greater number of competent rushers.
The Bears leading rusher is Johnathon Smith. Smith has 150 carries for 1,348 yards in addition to 25 rushing touchdowns. Other than Smith and Holder, no other Bear has more than 300 yards rushing.
A plethora of backfield players have received touches for the Bulldogs this season. Four Dogs have rushed for more than 600 yards and at least six touchdowns.
Leading the charge for Murphy is Slade McTaggart. The junior has 857 yards rushing on the season and 21 rushing touchdowns. McTaggart had 180 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Murphy’s victory over East Surry.
This is the third time since 2008 that the Mount Airy Granite Bears have been 13-0. In 2008, the Bears completed the clean sweep to win the state championship with a 16-0 record.
Mount Airy returned to the state championship game the following year but fell short, finishing 15-1 as the state runner-up.
The road to a ring goes through the previous 1A champs, the Murphy Bulldogs. To even have a shot at bringing home the gold, Mount Airy has to go through, “The Man,” first.
Mount Airy hosts Murphy on Friday, December 1 at 7:30pm.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith