The Watauga High football team was in a generous mood in its home opener Friday night against Ashe County at Jack Groce Stadium. The Pioneers committed four turnovers, including three fumbles, and they were penalized nine times
for 77 yards. But despite all that, the Pioneers hung on to win their first game of the year by knocking off the Huskies, 23-21. It was WHS' (1-1) 11th win in a row against the HUskies in this series, but it was also the tighest game between the teams since a 14-8 win by the Pioneers in 2004 at the old Jack Groce Stadium (Eric Breitenstein, a senior and a Walter Payton Award candidate at Wofford College, scored both WHS touchdowns in that game).
"A win is a win, and we'll take it," said WHS coach Tom Wright, who picked up his first varsity head-coaching win since the 2000-01 season with the WHS women's basketball team. "Penalties and turnovers really hurt us tonight. We've got to make corrections in that area. But we fought through it and established a little bit of a running game in the fourth quarter and that allowed us to pull it out."
The Pioneers also had two big plays called back by penalty---a huge run by Nick Williams that put the ball at the three-yard-line in the second quarter, and a 57-yard punt return for a TD by T.J. Poulos in the third quarter. And the Pioneers, who dominated field position in the first quarter thanks to a safety by Collin Augustine that gave the Pioneers an early 2-0 lead, failed to break the game open.
"I am real proud of the way we played tonight," said first-year coach Brian Hampton of the Huskies. "We expect to compete against these guys, and our players did just that tonight. Watauga is well coached and they've got talent. But we hung in there. That safety in the first quarter was the difference."
Augustine, who sacked quarterback Eli Gambill with 11:19 to play in the opening stanza, had a huge night for the Pioneers. He ran for 98 yards on 17 carries, scored twice, he threw a two-point conversion pass to Cameron Baker, and he made 11 tackles, including two quarterback sacks and four tackles-for-loss. Taylor Shuford paced WHS had 15 stops. Defensively, the Pioneers had six sacks for 39 yards. Augustine's five-yard scoring run with 3:40 left in the game gave WHS a 23-14 lead.
"We were finally able to establish a running game, especially on that drive," Augustine said. "It's a little disappointing the way we played, but give them credit, they came after us. I know Eli, and a lot of those Ashe County guys. Eli is a great leader for them, and they're all good guys. They played us tough. They made us earn it tonight."
Gambill paced the Huskies (1-1). He threw for 125 yards with a pair of touchdown passes, and he ran for 44 yards and a score. But he was sacked six times. Jacob Blevins of the Huskies caught six passes for 38 yards, and he scored Ashe County's final TD on a five yard toss with five seconds left in the game that made it 23-21; that play capped off an 11-play, 80-yard drive.
"We gave ourselves a chance," Hampton said. "That last touchdown got us in a position to win the game, but we just ran out of time. We just took too long to score. But you never know, you recover the on-side kick, a long pass or a field goal, depending on our field position, could win the game."
Jake Page recovered Anthony Federico's on-side kick to settle the issue. Quarterback Tripp Taylor was 12-21 for 110 yards. He hooked up with Baker on a 24-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter that gave WHS a 10-0 lead; he also threw an interception. In turn, the Huskies scored two of their touchdowns on WHs turnovers. One of those scores came on a bizarre play in the second quarter. Page picked off a Gambill pass near the WHS 45-yard-line, but Michael Elliott of the Huskies stripped the ball free and recovered it at the 43. That set up a five-play scoring drive as Jonathan Cox scampered in on a 40-yard screen pass that cut WHS' lead to 10-7 just before halftime.
A fumble by DeWayne Mackey at the WHS 29 in the fourth quarter led to another score. The Huskies punched it in six plays later on Gambill's two-yard run that made it 17-14 with 7:42 left in the game. But Augustine's second TD put the contest out of reach.
"We knew what we were up against," Baker said. "We saw them on film, and we knew they had a good team. It was a good competitive game. We just had to make some big plays as a team."
The Pioneers will be back home next Friday night against Avery. Coverage of that game begins at 6:30 p.m. on Oldies 100.7 FM.
NOTES: WHS leads the all-time series against the Huskies 12-2.....The Huskies are 0-7 lifetime in Boone......Ashe County hasn't beaten WHS since 2001. The Huskies won that game 14-7. Ironically, that win gave Ashe County a 2-1 lead in the series at the time before WHS went on its current streak.
Score by Quarters 1 2 3 4 Total
Ashe County 0 7 0 14 21
Watauga 2 8 7 6 23
FIRST DOWNS: ASHE COUNTY 16, WHS 14
TOTAL YARDS: ASHE COUNTY 213, WHS 267
RUSHING YARDS: ASHE COUNTY 88, WHS 157
PASSING YARDS: ASHE COUNTY 125, WHS 110
TURNOVERS: ASHE COUNTY 1, WHS 4
TIME OF POSSESSION: ASHE COUNTY 29:10, WHS 18:50
3RD DOWN CONVERSIONS: ASHE COUNTY 4-13, WHS 3-8
4TH DOWN CONVERSIONS: ASHE COUNTY 1-4, WHS 0-3
ASHE COUNTY: GAMBILL 26-44-TD
WHS: AUGUSTINE 17-98-2TD
ASHE COUNTY: GAMBILL 14-26-1-2TD
WHS: TAYLOR 12-21-1-110-TD
ASHE COUNTY: BLEVINS 6-38-TD
WHS: WILLIAMS 5-50, BAKER 4-47-TD
FRIDAY NIGHT'S GAMES
NORTHWESTERN 3A/4A CONFERENCE
WATAUGA 23, ASHE COUNTY 21
HICKORY 21, NEWTON-CONOVER 15
SOUTH CALDWELL 42, WEST CALDWELL 0
BUNKER HILL 46, ST. STEPHENS 7
BANDYS 32, FRED T. FOARD 0
HIBRITEN 28, TUSCOLA 14
FREEDOM 47, ALEXANDER CENTRAL 13
AVERY 21, WEST WILKES 7
Photo Courtesy: Collin Augustine, Rob Moore