Only this time around, the game was much more competitive. The Watauga High football team, which was simply embarrassed last season by Porter Ridge, gave the Pirates all they could handle Friday night in the opening round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Class 4A state playoffs at Jack Groce
The Pirates (8-4), the No.3 seed from the Southwestern 4A Conference and the No.11 seed overall, rallied from a 26-13 deficit and defeated WHS, 32-26. The win moves Porter Ridge into a second-round match up with Rocky River, which won the SW4A regular-season title, next Friday night. The Ravens advanced by defeating Pfafftown-Reagan 26-6 in Mint Hill, N.C., Friday night.
A 20-yard run by quarterback Isaiah Hicklin with 4:24 left in the third quarter, a 77-yard punt return by Jerrick Robbins with 5:05 left in the game, and a one-yard run by Nick Vagnone capped off a 19-point rally, handing the Pirates a huge win on the road.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game," said first-year Porter Ridge coach Greg Neuendorf. "It was cold and wet. The elements aren't what we're use to, and we didn't come in here over confident. We came here to play a good football team at their place, and we pulled out a huge win."
Two huge plays derailed WHS' (8-4) hopes of winning its first playoff game since 2011. Leading 26-20 with a little more than five minutes left, and facing a fourth-and-six at the Pirates 48-yard-line, WHS pulled off a fake punt and picked up a first down.
Quarterback Aaron Dobbins, who is also WHS' punter, hit Justin Greer with a first-down pass at the Pirates 40. But the play was wiped out by a five-yard penalty, pushing the ball back to the Pioneers' 47.
The Pioneers were forced to punt and Robbins returned it 77 yards to tie the game. T.J. Poulos, who played one of his best games for the Pioneers, blocked the an point (Hunter Isaacs and Justin Greer each had a blocked PAT as well) to preserve the tie.
"They shouldn't have kicked the ball to me," Robbins said. "I just made one move, and that's all it takes. The blocking was great, and I just found the seam and hit it hard. We never really panicked when we fell behind. We felt we could win this game. We been here before. We just had to make some plays, and we did."
"We're young and it shows sometimes," WHS coach Ryan Habich said. "If we make a first down on that (fake punt), we're in a position to score again, or at least to eat more time off the clock. It's a learning process. I thought we played very well tonight, especially on defense, against a Charlotte school. But we made some costly mistakes late in the game. It's the little things that matter the most in this game."
The backbreaker came on WHS' next possession. Facing a fourth-and-two at its 38-yard-line with 2:39 left, the Pioneers were hoping to force Porter Ridge offsides. But the ball was snapped, Dobbins lost the handle, and was taken down for a five-yard loss at his 33 by Solomon Worthy of the Pirates.
It took Porter Ridge only six plays to score the game-winning TD on Vagnone's one-yard run with 31 seconds left to play.
"We weren't suppose to snap the ball on that play," Habich said. "We just want to make them jump offsides. It worked earlier (on WHS' previous possession). It was a miscommunication. Aaron thought I changed the play. But give Porter Ridge a lot of credit. They've got a tough defense, and they, for the most part, shut down our option game. It's hard to score on this team. But I'm proud of our team, and I'm very pleased with the season we had."
"It was a misunderstanding," Dobbins said. "He was pretty mad on the sidelines, but he also said things like that happen. It was my fault. All we talked about all week was believing we can win this game. We didn't want to lose like we did last year (69-0 loss) again. We wanted Porter Ridge to respect us."
The Pioneers had one more chance. A short kick-off was returned to the WHS 45 by senior Austin Northern, and the Pioneers marched it to the Pirates 40 with 1.3 seconds left. A double pass from Dobbins to Cam Baker never materialized, ending the game and WHS' magical season.
"We overcame all the criticism we heard this season," Baker said. "We started a little slow tonight, but once we found our rhythm, we started moving the ball. And T.J. had a heck of a game. He's such a great player. I could see that my first year (when Baker transferred to WHS), my sophomore year. T.J. played basketball and football, he's a great player and he stepped up big tonight. I'm proud of him. That's my little brother right there."
Poulos had a great all-around performance. He ran for 22 yards, caught four passes for 88 yards, including a game-tying 50-yard scoring toss in the first quarter, he blocked two extra points, and he made seven tackles, including one tackle-for-loss.
"The biggest adjustment for us was the game speed," Poulos said. "They're a Charlotte school and they're faster than we are. I got to block a couple of extra points tonight. They were pinching down on Hunter (Isaacs) all night, and I had a free run every time. Extra points are huge, and they can decide a game. I was just trying to make a big play. We're looking forward to next year. We've got a good team coming back."
"It was a very good season," Habich said. "We were picked to finish last in our (Northwestern 3A/4A) conference, and we finished third and won eight games. And we played a tough Charlotte school down to the wire. I'm proud of our team., They exceeded expectation this year. It was a great year. We're young, and a lot of our players were playing (junior varsity) last season. It takes time to adjust at this level. This is just a start for Watauga football. We're not at the same level as Porter Ridge, but we're going to be there."
Dobbins was 7-17 passing for 110 yards with an interception and a TD pass; he also WHS' leading rusher with 47 yards on 18 carries. The Pioneers were held to 102 yards rushing. Defensively, linebacker Dakota McCrary made 11 stops and he returned an interception 30 yards for a TD in the second quarter that gave WHS a 20-13 halftime lead. The Pioneers also forced three turnovers. WHS' special teams blocked three extra points.
Robbins and Vandervoot paced a strong Pirates running game that garnered 253 yards. Robbins ran for 111 yards on 25 carries with two rushing TDs. Vandervoot rambled for 88 yards on 12 carries.
NOTES: The Pioneers haven't won a state playoff game since 2011, a 17-14 win at home against Alexander Central....WHS has lost three state playoff games in a row....The Pioneers are 1-5 in state playoff games dating back to 2008....Porter Ridge is 2-0 lifetime against WHS....The Pioneers haven't beaten a Charlotte-area school in the state playoffs since 2007, when they defeated Central Cabarrus 52-36 at the old Jack Groce Stadium. Eric Breitenstein scored a school-record six TDs in that game....The Pioneers posted their sixth winning season since 1982, and their eight wins were the most in a single season since 2007, when they were 11-4.....Porter Ridge suspended two players before Friday night's game against WHS. One of those players was senior wide receiver and defensive end Luke Bayly, one of its best players.
PORTER RIDGE 32, WATAUGA 26
Score by Quarters 1 2 3 4 Total
Porter Ridge 13 0 7 12 - 32
Watauga High 10 10 6 0 - 26
06:28 PRHS - Jerrick Robbins 8 yd run (Devin Jordan kick), 11-69 3:59 7 - 0
04:59 WHS - TJ Poulos 50 yd pass from Aaron Dobbins (S. Shirley kick), 4-63 1:24 7 - 7
04:06 PRHS - Jerrick Robbins 5 yd run (Devin Jordan kick blockd), 5-55 0:49 13 - 7
00:28 WHS - S. Shirley 28 yd field goal, 9-55 3:08 13 - 10
03:51 WHS - S. Shirley 38 yd field goal, 9-27 4:19 13 - 13
03:25 WHS - Dakota McCrary 30 yd interception return (S. Shirley kick) 13 - 20
08:57 WHS - Zach Williams 1 yd run (S. Shirley kick failed), 5-19 2:28 13 - 26
04:24 PRHS - Isaiah Hicklin 20 yd run (Devin Jordan kick), 11-80 4:18 20 - 26
05:05 PRHS - Jerrick Robbins 77 yd punt return (Devin Jordan kick blockd) 26 - 26
00:31 PRHS - Nick Vagnone 1 yd run (Devin Jordan kick blockd), 6-33 2:08 32 - 26
FIRST DOWNS: WHS 11, PORTER RIDGE 15
RUSHING YARDS: WHS 102, PORTER RIDGE 253
PASSING YARDS: WHS 110, PORTER RIDGE 43
TOTAL YARDS: WHS 212, PORTER RIDGE 296
FUMBLES/LOST: WHS 0-0, PORTER RIDGE 1-1
PENALTY YARDS: WHS 3-24, PORTER RIDGE 8-43
TURNOVERS: WHS 1, PORTER RIDGE 3
TIME OF POSSESSION: WHS 21:50, PORTER RIDGE 25:39
3RD DOWN CONVERSIONS: WHS 3-12, PORTER RIDGE 6-11
4TH DOWN CONVERSIONS: WHS 0-1, PORTER RIDGE 1-1
WHS - DOBBINS 18-47, WILLIAMS 14-33, POULOS 4-22
PRHS- ROBBINS 25-111-2TD, VANDERVOOT 12-88, VAGNONE 4-18-TD
WHS - DOBBINS 7-17-I-TD-110
PRHS - HICKLIN 4-11-I-43, DANIELSON 0-1-I
WHS - POULOS 4-88-TD, FORD 3-22
PRHS - YORK 2-22, HARDISON 2-21
Photo Courtesy: Dakota McCrary, WHS Athletics