PILOT MOUNTAIN — Many people were predicting hard times for East Surry football after the team lost more than 20 seniors off a record-setting 2015 team that won 13 games. Instead, the Cardinals re-invented themselves, and won a share of the Northwest 1A Conference title the next season and reached the 1AA state quarterfinals last fall.
A big part of East Surry’s success the last two years was a hard-nosed offensive line that helped the Cardinals pick up an average of 6.2 yards per attempt in 2016 and 6.7 in 2017, despite injuries that often left the team shorthanded in the backfield. One of the key players in the trenches for Coach David Diamont’s last two East Surry teams was 6’3”, 255-pound senior tackle Nathan Vass.
Vass didn’t leave East Surry with any big career numbers of his own, just a handful of tackles he was credited for when playing defense. But he played a major role in the nearly 6,000 yards that Cardinal ball-carriers picked up in those two years, along with the 18 victories. His efforts in that regard were not un-noticed, and on March 11, he signed to continue his football career at Ferrum College after a recruiting battle that involved several area college programs.
“Honestly, I clicked with the coaching staff a lot, and I really liked the campus and the scenery,” Vass said of choosing Ferrum, a member of the NCAA Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference that went 8-2 last season. “They offered more to me than any other school did, so I chose them.”
Vass said that three other schools were also heavily involved in his recruiting process. Two of them were rivals of the Panthers in the USA South Conference the past several seasons, N.C. Wesleyan and Greensboro. The third was Emory & Henry, a new league rival as Ferrum joins the ODAC for the 2018 season. The Panthers beat all three teams last fall.
Vass said that the Ferrum coaching staff hasn’t been specific about where he will play, but he will be working on the offensive line in college. At East, he also took occasional spins on the defensive side of the ball. Academically, he was leaning toward business administration, but is now looking at criminal justice as a major.
Like many of his teammates on the last two Cardinal teams, Vass said that the highlight of his career was when East Surry pulled off one of the biggest upsets anywhere in the state that fall. In the 2016 regular-season finale, the Cardinals were four-touchdown underdogs to arch-rival Mount Airy, but stunned the Bears 21-10 on their own field.
“We’d just lost to Walkertown and then had to go play Mount Airy, which was rough,” he said. “There was a little bit of doubt going in, but I had faith in my teammates and we all had faith that we could pull through, and we did. We played the perfect ballgame that night.”
The key to the victory was in the performance of the Cardinals’ offensive line. East dominated time of possession, and even Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder admitted that the Cardinals “just came in and mashed us.” The win allowed East Surry to earn a share of the conference title that season.
Vass has been playing football since the third grade, and credits Cardinal offensive line coach Steve Whitt with making him a better player.
“Coach Whitt has pushed me all along, been there for me and helped me with the recruiting process,” Vass said. “He worked with me during the recruiting process and during the summer to make sure my form was down.”
He’s excited to apply what he’s learned to a new adventure in the ODAC.
“It sort of ended in a bitter way here, losing in the third round last year, but I’m looking forward to playing football for four more years,” he said.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.