Pioneers Advance By Downing SW Guilford, 50-49 (2016-11-19 17:22:33)

BOONE - The Watauga High football team pulled off a double-whammy Friday night at Jack Groce Stadium.


The Pioneers (9-3), riding a four-game winning streak, knocked off Southwest Guilford 50-49 in the opening-round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A State Playoffs. That win snapped a five-game losing streak in the state playoffs, and the Pioneers beat their first non-conference opponent in the playoffs since 2007 (before that it was Pembroke-Purnell Swett).

It also avenged a triple-overtime loss to the Cowboys in the opening round last season.

"This is truly a deserving win for our team and our seniors," WHS coach Ryan Habich said. "(Southwest Guilford) is a good football team, and they come from a good conference (Piedmont-Triad 4A). Plus, we're a little thin on defense, especially at linebacker (Ben Critcher and Joey Watson have been lost for the season with injuries). We don't have a lot of depth, and we moved a lot of people around, and a lot of them were playing new positions. But they adjusted and did a good job. (Southwest Guilford) was hard to stop, but you got to have grit in the playoffs to win. And tonight, our guys showed a lot of grit. You have to find ways to make plays, and we did that, especially in the second half. Our program is getting over the hump here at Watauga, the way we're playing football."

The win moves WHS into a second-round matchup against the No. 2 seed, Greensboro-Dudley, next Friday night. The Panthers (11-1), who were state semifinalists last season, knocked off Alexander Central 52-8 in their first-round game.

And the Pioneers, who came into Friday night's game averaging 51 points and more than 400-yards rushing a game, added to those totals against the Cowboys. They cracked the 50-point barrier for the sixth time this year, they ran for 344 yards and racked up 517 yards on offense.

Senior running back Evan Suggs, who never came off the field (he played linebacker on defense), paced WHS on the ground with 243 yards on 31 carries with a touchdown.

"When you get to the playoffs it comes down to who wants it more," Suggs said. "We came to play. We had our ups and downs, but we stayed with it. We really wanted this game."

"They were very strong up front," said senior center August Sauls., "And they started bring a lot of their linebackers in the second half, but we made the necessary adjustments and found a way. We talked at halftime and we decided we weren't going to let the season end. We were going to get the job done and get after it. This team has a lot of fight."

The game featured five lead changes and four ties. But for a game dominated by offense, it came down to a huge defensive play that saved the Pioneers.

Leading 50-49 with 2:17 left to play, the Cowboys (7-5) decided to go for two to take the lead. But senior Corey Williams picked off Jared Rainey's pass in the end zone to end the threat.

The Pioneers recovered the on-side kick at their 46-yard-line and ran out the clock, thanks to a 31-yard run by Suggs and two first downs.

"I just stayed in my zone," Williams said. "When I saw him reverse field, and I saw his receiver behind me moving around. But I didn't bite, I just held my ground in the end zone. It was a hard decision, but it all worked out."

The Cowboys had an impressive night as well. Running back Bryson Jumper ran for 119 yards and four TDs in the loss. And the Cowboys had 382 yards offensively.

The Pioneers finally jumped on top for good in the fourth quarter. Hamilton Castle capped off an eight-play, 57-yard drive with a 12-yard scoring pass to Byers Carney, giving WHS a 43-36 lead.

The Cowboys fumbled on their next possession and Jackson Greene recovered at the WHS 46-yard-line. The Pioneers punched it in four plays later on Castle's 39-yard scoring pass to Williams for a 50-36 advantage with 4:35 left.

Castle, like Suggs, had a huge game for the Pioneers. He ran for 65 yards and two TDs, he was 8-of-11 through the air for 133 yards with three TD passes, and he also scored on a two-point conversion.

"Hamilton really stuck it out," Habich said. "He threw a couple of intercepitions, and they got to him a couple of times, but he hung in there and found a way to make plays. But he's been doing that for us all year. I'm real impressed with the way he threw those touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Even though he threw a couple of intercepitons, he didn't shy away from throwing the ball. Our team just played an outstanding game against a very good football team."

"It was our motivation to win this playoff game," Castle said. "It's been a while since we've done that. Our offensive line did a great job tonight. They created some huge holes for us. This is by far the quickest team we've faced all year. We just had to adjust to it."

But the Pioneers had a couple of breakdowns, allowing Southwest Guilford to narrow the gap. D.J. Gray returned the ensuing kick-off 78 yards for a TD, making it a one-possession game. The Pioneers turned the ball over on the following kick-off that gave the Cowboys a first down on WHS' 37.

Rainey scored five plays later on a three-yard run, but that play also set the stage for Williams' game-saving heroics.

"When you score 49 points in a game, you should win the game," Southwest Guilford coach Eric Rainey said. "Our kids kept playing until the end, but (Watauga) made a huge play at the end. Turnovers really hurt us tonight. (Watauga) is a very good team. They run it well, and they made some big plays on defense. We missed a lot of tackles, but credit to their running backs and their offensive line. Their backs ran through our tackles, and their offensive line blocked very well."

The Cowboys turned it over four times, including three fumbles. WHS turned it over three times.

"The key was not scoring just before halftime," Rainey said. "If we score there, and we scored on our first possession of the second half, it would have given us some breathing room against a team that doesn't throw it that much."

Watauga stiffened at its 23-yard-line and forced Southwest Guilford to turn the ball over on downs just before the break. The Pioneers capped things off by sacking Rainey on fourth down.

Coverage next Friday night from Greensboro-Dudley comes your way at 6:30 p.m. on WATA 1450 AM/96.5 FM.

Watauga 50, Southwest Guilford 49

Southwest Guilford 7 15 14 13 — 49
Watauga 15 7 14 14 — 50

Scoring summary
First quarter
WHS—H. Castle 11 run (H. Castle run)
SWG—Epps 3 pass from Rainey (Chu kick)
WHS—Suggs 46 run (Densham kick)

Second quarter
SWG—Jumper 9 run (Rainey pass good)
SWG—Jumper 22 run (Chu kick)
WHS—West 40 pass from A. Castle (Densham kick)

Third quarter
SWG—Jumper 30 run (Chu kick)
WHS—H. Castle 2 run (Densham kick)
WHS—Suggs 21 run (Densham kick)
SWG—Jumper 6 run (Densham kick)

Fourth quarter
WHS—Carney 12 pass from H. Castle (Densham kick)
WHS—Williams 39 pass from Castle (Densham kick)
SWG—Gray 78 yard kickoff return (Chu kick)
SWG—Rainey 5 run (Pass failed)

SW Guilford Watauga
First downs 18 22
By rushing 10 16
By passing 8 6
By penalty 0 0
Rushes-yards 31-169 51-344
Avg. per rush 5.4 6.7
Passing yards 213 173
Passes 16-18-0 9-12-2
Total plays-yards 49-382 60-517
Avg. per play 7.9 8.6
Punts-avg. 1-30.0 1-29.0
Penalties-yards 5-30 3-25
Fumbles 3-3 0-0

Rushing: SW Guilford—Jumper 14-119, Gray 8-30, Smith 2-13, Rainey 7-7; Watauga—Suggs 31-243, Castle 10-65, West 10-36.
Passing: SW Guilford—Rainey 16-17-0 202; Watauga—H. Castle 8-11-2 133; A. Castle 1-1-0 40.
Receiving: SW Guilford—Allen 5-43, Harris 4-46, Gray 2-38, Jackson 2-30, Epps 2-9, Smith 1-45; Watauga—West 6-88; Williams 1-39, Carney 1-12, Gough 1-17, Suggs 0-29.

Photo Courtesy: Evan Suggs, WHS Athletics