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Just How Good Are They..... PDF Print
Written by Mike Kelly   
Thursday, 10 October 2013 18:13

That's the question a lot of people are asking right now, when it comes to the Watauga High football team. The Pioneers (6-0 overall; 2-0 Northwestern 3A/4A Conference), off to their best start in seven years, find themselves in a three-way tie for first place with Freedom and Hibriten.
And the Pioneers will have a chance to show off their talents in the next two weeks as they  match up against the Patriots (5-1; 2-0) tomorrow night at Jack Groce Stadium (coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on AM 1450, WATA and before Hibriten (6-0; 2-0) comes to town next week.

"Like I told the kids, when I got this job (in April)," WHS coach Ryan Habich said, "we want to play in games like this. It takes a lot of work to get there, but the guys have put in the time. They've gotten better each week and we're still a young football team. We're still not where we want to be, but we worked hard to get here. And it's a big one Friday night.

"They're bigger and stronger than us, but like I told the kids, we can beat teams like that, but we have to execute. We've been preparing all week. You don't win games like this on Friday night. It starts on Monday. They're a very good football team, and it's going to be a difficult game for us Friday night. But our players will be prepared."

And Friday night's game against the Patriots, the first meeting between the schools since 2008, should be very entertaining as well. After all, both teams are led by a pair of young coaches that have developed a winning reputation. Habich, in his first year at WHS, was mentored by the legendary David Riggs. And Habich was a excellent student.

He was 50-14 during his five-year stay as head coach at Fuquay-Varina, where he replaced Riggs after he retired. Habich led the Bengals to three conference championships and the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Class 4A state playoffs in 2009. Blair Hardin, in his first year at Freedom, has followed a similar path.

During his five-year stay at Indian Trail-Porter Ridge, Hardin, who is the son of legendary coach Bruce Hardin and the brother of Charlotte-Providence coach Justin Hardin, was 50-18 with the Pirates. He led them to three conference titles, the Class 4A Western Finals three years in a row, and to the state championship game the last two seasons.

And now, both of these men have brought their winning ways to their new venues. Habich has transformed a WHS team, that has produced just one winning season (2011) in the last five years, into a dynamo. The Pioneers have looked nearly unstoppable the last four weeks.

They're averaging 47 points and 424 yards during that stretch. Meanwhile, the Patriots, coming off their best season in school history (they were 12-3 last year and made it to the Class 3A Western Finals), haven't missed a beat with Hardin at the helm.

And the scary thing is, both the Pioneers and the Patriots are loaded with young talent.

"We're playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores," Hardin said. "I came to Freedom because they have such a rich tradition. The kids know what it takes to win. We're young, and we're still learning a new system. We still have to clean some stuff up, but for the most part, the kids have done a good job. They've done what we asked them to do. They've bought into the system, and that's what matters the most, especially to a new coach."

And the Patriots, like WHS, also have a new coaching staff. Hardin has seven new assistants on his staff. But one familiar face does return---senior Khris Gardin, a preseason all-state player with big-play abilities. Gardin, was the first 1,000-yard receiver in school history last fall, and he hasn't missed a step this season.

Gardin  who is second in the NW3A/4A in receiving, has caught 30 passes for 461 yards for five touchdowns. But he's also a versatile player that can hurt opponents in a lot of different ways. Gardin has returned four kick-offs, a punt, and two interceptions for TDs the last two years.

"He has tremendous speed, and he's not alone," Habich said. "That (B.J. Emmons) and (Chris Bridges) are just as fast. This will be a great challenge for us defensively. It all comes down to assignment football. We have to cut them off on the perimeter and not allow them space in the open field. And we've got to tackle well. We have to be very sharp fundamentally. We don't have the speed to run those guys down."

And the Patriots have a senior-dominated offensive line. And thanks to those guys up front, the Patriots are second in the league in rushing. They're averaging 274 yards a game. They're also second in total offense. Defensively, the Patriots are led by linebacker Izzy Davis, who had 61 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and two quarterback sacks last year.

And the Patriots are blessed with an experienced secondary (the strongest area of their team), that features Gardin, Bridges and Emmons. Freedom leads the NW3A/4A against the run and in total defense.

"They're very fast on the defensive side of the ball," Habich said. "They can make plays, and if they over run a play, or fall behind someone, they've got the speed and the ability to make those adjustments on the fly. They're a big-play team. Offense, defense, special teams. They can hurt you in so many areas. Our goal is to be competitive and to make this a fourth-quarter game."

Freedom has dominated the Pioneers over the years. Freedom leads the all-time series 28-7-1, but the Pioneers have won two of the last three meetings. They beat the Patriots 14-7 in Boone in 2006, picking up their first win against Freedom in 22 years; they won 27-8 in 2007, chalking up their first road win ever against the Patriots.

"A lot of our preparation is believing we can win a game like this," Habich said. "In high school football, amazing things can happen. We tell our kids all the time that we're not individuals, we're a team. And if you can get a bunch of people to play together as a team, we can pull off some big upsets. I was very fortunate (at Fuquay-Varina) where we beat teams that were bigger and faster than us. And we did it as a team. And Friday night, we're going to have to pull off an upset by playing as a team."

And the Pioneers have a big-time player in sophomore quarterback Aaron Dobbins. He leads the NW3A/4A with 940 yards and 15 TD passes. He's only thrown two interceptions in 54 attempts this season. And he's completed 63% of his passes.

"Watauga has a solid team," Hardin said. "And they can score quickly. They play mistake-free football. They don't beat themselves, and when you can you can do that on a consistent basis like they are, you're going to win football games. And Dobbins is outstanding. He's the guy that makes them go. The guy can extend plays, and he can make the tough throws. He moves the pocket well. He's just a very good player, and the scary part is that he's only a sophomore."

Word of advice, get to the stadium early, or you won't find a seat.

Blair Hardin was the head coach at Porter Ridge last November, when the Pirates handed WHS its worst loss in school history, a 69-0 loss in the opening-round of the NCHSAA Class 4A state playoffs....The Patriots beat WHS in their last meeting, 24-17 in 2008.

Photo Courtesy: Aaron Dobbins (#8) gathers the troops, Rob Moore

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