PILOT MOUNTAIN — Since he joined the East Surry High School varsity football team midway through his freshman season, all Joey Ray has done is win.
Ray and his Cardinals teammates won 41 games in four seasons, claimed three Northwest 1A Conference titles, and reached the elite eight of the 1AA state playoffs in his sophomore and senior years. As for Ray himself, he rushed for 4,238 yards in his East Surry career, was named All-Conference three times, and earned a spot in the 1A All-State team his senior season.
On Friday afternoon, Ray announced that he would continue his football career at the next level by signing with Wake Forest University.
“They’ve been recruiting me for a long time, and we’ve had constant communication for a few years now,” said Ray, who chose the Demon Deacons over interest from N.C. State and Princeton. “I took my official visit and I loved it there, and it’s close to home, so my family, friends and community can all see my games. It just felt like it was the place for me.”
Ray, who competed in both football and track and field for East Surry, played in several memorable games on the gridiron for the Cardinals. He said that the first one came early in his sophomore season, when East was one of the top-ranked 1A teams in the state, but faced a difficult challenge of winning on the road against a strong Walkertown team. That night, Ray rushed for 146 yards on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns in a 37-21 East Surry win.
In his junior year, the Cardinals were supposed to be rebuilding and not a contender for any titles. However, no one puts on an East Surry uniform and lays down for anyone. The young team was beaten by Walkertown in conference play and lost two non-conference games, and came into their regular-season finale as a 28-point underdog to Mount Airy, ranked No. 2 in the state and 10-0 on the season.
“They were a great team with great coaches,” said Ray, whose coach, Dave Diamont, had told his team before the game that they had to ‘make it ugly’ if they had any chance of upsetting the Granite Bears.
Ray carried the ball a whopping 39 times and gained 169 yards in a masterpiece of ugliness, scoring all three touchdowns as East Surry beat Mount Airy 21-10 and won a share of its third straight NW1A crown. The Bears bounced back and roughed up the Cardinals in a playoff rematch, but that didn’t take the trophy away.
“I wish we had done that the second time we played them,” said Ray. “But that first game was special.”
As a senior, East Surry was again highly regarded, despite the fact that their arch-rivals were as strong as ever. But the season began with a disappointing loss to the other “East Cardinals,” the ones from Wilkes County. Ray had 110 yards rushing in the 36-20 loss, but neither he nor anyone else was happy with the way they had played.
Eventually, the team rounded into form. East Surry lost tough, hard-fought games with a North Surry team that won its conference, a good 4A Ragsdale team, and to a Mount Airy team that made it to the state finals, but beat everyone else in the regular season. In the first round of the playoffs, the Cardinals held off Starmount and earned another chance against East Wilkes.
“We had dropped the first game of the season to them at home, and so we had to go their place for the playoffs,” he recalled. “That’s a really great community and they have a great football team, and we just had it going. We had a great scheme and they couldn’t stop our offense.”
Diamont and the coaching staff had put in a new scheme designed to exploit Wilkes’ shaky run defense, and Ray ran for 256 yards on 19 carries and found the end zone three times. East Wilkes had a powerful offense, but its’ defense couldn’t stop East Surry, which earned a 49-36 revenge victory.
”I just had a great time playing,” he said, crediting his teammates and family for their support throughout his time with the Cardinals. “It was an unforgettable experience playing here and I am thankful for it.”
His coach is appreciative not only of Ray’s brilliance on the football field, but also his college choice.
“Joey Ray has been one of the most hard-working players I have ever coached,” said Diamont. “The fact that he is going to go to my university is absolutely awesome. I look forward to it and I know he will go down there and work his butt off, get a great education and be a fine representative for East Surry High School and his family. I’m just extremely proud to be a little part of it.”
Ray said the Deacons haven’t decided where they might utilize him yet.
”The running back coach is who I’ve been talking to the most, and I’m going to be in meetings during spring practice in the running back room, but it depends on what they want to do with me,” he said. “They’ve talked about me at slot receiver. Whatever the coaches feel like is best for me is where I’ll play.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.