Three local teams will begin their quest for a state football championship this Friday night. One of them begins the postseason on their home field, as one of the favorites to win the 1-AA state championship. The other two will look at make a Cinderella run as a lower seed, starting on the road.
Coming off an 11-0 regular season, East Surry hopes to end a frustrating legacy of early playoff exits in recent seasons. The Cardinals are ranked in the state’s top five by every poll and power ranking system out there, and begin their quest for a championship at home against 14th seed Bessemer City.
North Surry is on the road as the ninth seed in the 2-AA field, where they will take on traditional power Maiden (8-3) in a game at nearby Bandys High School. Mount Airy, meanwhile, drew the 12th seed in the 1-AA West. They face one of the longest road trips in the state, a 223-mile trek to Whiteville High School.
North Surry vs. Maiden
The Greyhounds were disappointed when their strong finish to the 2015 season, which included a third-place finish in the Western Piedmont 2-A Conference, wasn’t quite enough to earn them a first-round home playoff game.
They still won’t have to play a true road game, though. Several weeks of rain have made the field at Maiden High School unplayable. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils made the decision to shift the game to Butler Stadium at Bandys High School in Catawba, a few miles down the road from Maiden. So, instead of a road game, the Hounds can open their postseason at a more neutral venue.
“I don’t know that it helps us or hurts us,” said North Surry coach Danny Lyons. “We were actually excited to be playing at Maiden, because we’d heard great things about their facility. But we’re excited to be playing a playoff game anywhere. None of our kids have ever played in a playoff game before.”
The Hounds played a playoff game at Bandys in 2006. Lyons was on the staff and still remembers the playing conditions.
“It’s a lot like our field, with no track,” he said. “The crowd is going to be on top of us. It’s only eight miles from (Maiden), so it’s still close to a home game for them.”
The stage could be set for the most exciting game at that stadium all season, considering that Bandys endured a 2-9 season and missed the playoffs altogether, while both the Hounds and the Blue Devils bring explosive spread offenses into their first-round battle.
“There are a lot of similarities,” said Lyons. “They’re wide-open on offense, have an athletic quarterback who runs and throws well, and a running back who’s run for over 1,000 yards.
“I know they’re in a tough league. We both finished third in a conference with two of the top 20 2-A teams ahead of us.”
Maiden, which qualified for postseason play as the third-place team in the Southern District 7 Conference, comes in having lost its last two contests, but those setbacks were at the hands of strong contenders for their respective state titles. East Lincoln, which beat the Blue Devils on Oct. 30, is 11-0 and the No. 2 seed in the 2-AA playoff bracket, while Lincolnton is 9-2 and the sixth seed in the 2-A version of the bracket. Maiden’s only other loss in an 8-3 regular season came back on Sept. 18 at the hands of 4-A South Caldwell.
Through 11 games, the Blue Devils are averaging 36.8 points per game, with a high of 50. The method to Maiden’s offensive madness will be familiar to North Surry fans.
The Blue Devils utilize a spread attack triggered by a standout quarterback, 6’2”, 180-pound junior Caleb Farley. Farley is not only the team’s leading rusher, with 1,284 yards on 146 carries (an average of 8.8), he has also completed 97 of 180 passes for 1,577 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Making the Blue Devils even more dangerous is the presence of a second 1,000-yard rusher. Junior running back Xzavion Huff has averaged almost eight yards a carry in his own right, with 1,064 yards on 134 attempts. Christian Shaw could start on most teams himself, with 246 yards on 49 carries to his credit this season. Instead, the senior gets reps as a receiver (14 catches for 196 yards) and has averaged 39.3 yards as the team’s punter.
Unfortunately for their opponents, Maiden has had to punt just 10 times all season.
Ten different players have caught passes for the Blue Devils this season, led by Huff’s 511 yards on 24 snags. Garrett Hubbard has 22 catches for 492 yards, Willis Chase 18-287, and Ty Williams 21-238.
Mount Airy at Whiteville
Every year, balancing out the divisions causes some 1-A team with a solid record to get sent outside its natural region. This season, that team was Whiteville, but the Wolfpack’s 8-3 overall record means they at least get to host an opening-round game. That means the Bears will face their first long road trip in a while.
“In 2006, we had to travel about 1,200 miles for four playoff games,” recalled coach Kelly Holder of his team that reached the state semifinals that season. “We’ll leave early enough to where we can stop a few times to stretch our legs. Our administration always does what we need in order for us to have a good trip. They take care of us.”
A strong contender for the state championship in each of the last two seasons, Whiteville advanced to the state quarterfinals of the 2-AA playoffs both years. The Wolfpack lost 17-7 to eventual state champion James Kenan in 2014, and 35-24 to Swain County last fall, when Whiteville was also consigned to the West. This year’s team, which suffered heavy graduation losses, still was tri-champion of the Three Rivers 1-A/2-A Conference. The Wolfpack’s bid to win the league outright failed last Friday, when conference rival South Columbus scored a touchdown with less than a minute to play, beating Whiteville 16-11 and creating a three-way tie for first place, between those teams and Fairmont.
Holder described the Wolfpack’s offense as a multiple-look scheme and compared them to Northwest 1-A foe Walkertown, who beat the Bears two weeks ago. He said that both teams are very athletic and have a lot of speed.
The key to the Whiteville offense is quarterback Nydir Carr. The 5’11”, 190-pound senior is responsible for the vast majority of the Wolfpack’s offensive production, and is just as effective running or passing. Holder described him as “very elusive and fast.”
One big question Bears fans had about this week’s game is who would play quarterback for Mount Airy. Last week, Coach Holder made a second-half move to Jackson Smith at quarterback, moving starting signal-caller Ian Holder to wide receiver.The younger Holder is an asset at either position, and putting him at wide receiver forced the Cardinals to show more respect to the Mount Airy passing game. After the reshuffling, the Bears’ offense was much more effective, and they plan to approach Whiteville the same way.
“We’ll start Jackson at quarterback,” said Coach Holder. “He gives us the opportunity to make other teams stop lining up against us with nine men in the box.”
According to local football historian Doug McDaniel, this is only the second meeting ever between the two schools. It’s likely that no one in the stadium on Friday night will remember the first. That took place on November 25, 1938, when the Granite Bears downed the Wolfpack 26-18 in Kenan Stadium for the Class B state championship.
Bessemer City at East Surry
East Surry is the lone local football team who drew a home playoff game in the first round of the state playoffs, but the Cardinals still could consider themselves unlucky.
Three teams in the 1AA West finished the 2015 season undefeated, and East Surry received the lowest seed of them (third) and will only be guaranteed two home games if the higher seeds win out.
Still, the Cardinals (11-0, 6-0) are excited about their chances in the playoffs, and their journey will begin with a first-round matchup against the Bessemer City Yellow Jackets (4-7, 3-3).
Bessemer City runs the triple-option on offense and uses a varied attack out of the backfield. Seven Yellow Jackets have at least 30 carries this season and Bessemer has ran the ball 397 times compared to just 130 pass attempts.
Leading Bessemer’s running game is junior Kevin Goodwin, who is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and has three games with over 100 yards rushing.
“We just have to prevent the long run,” East Surry coach David Diamont said. “That’s the main thing because they have speed. We have to keep them off the corner.”
Defensive backs Demidrick Hargrave and Jack Shabdue will need to find a way to get off their blocks and make some tackles in open space.
If they can force the Yellow Jackets into the middle of the field, defensive linemen Chris Cosgrove (61) and Tony Speaks (37) will be waiting alongside linebackers Staymon Johnson (94) and Shawn Creed (81).
On the other side of the ball, Coach Diamont noted that the Yellow Jackets run a very similar defense to Mount Airy. With four defensive lineman and two linebackers in almost every formation, East Surry will look to keep its 2015 offensive surge rolling.
Senior Kadrian Pitts is Bessemer’s middle linebacker who consistently finds himself around the ball and making tackles. He will be faced with a tough assignment on Friday though trying to lock down East Surry’s Joey Ray.
The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been a pleasant surprise all season with 890 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. His success opens up the field for senior quarterback Tyler Smith (135.1 rating) to find his weapons in Blake Marion (10 touchdowns) and Kim Taylor (3).
East Surry will try to erase the haunting memories of a first-round 23-15 loss last season to Avery County. Diamont is confident with his team’s response in practice this week after a Northwest Conference championship win over Mount Airy last week, and the coaching staff has reminded previous success doesn’t roll over to the playoffs.
“We’ve reminded our kids all year that there are three seasons: non-conference, conference and now the playoffs,” East Surry coach David Diamont said. “You have to be prepared and you can’t assume anything. Everyone is 0-0.”
Mount Airy News sports writer Jackson Fuller contributed to this report.