Give Watauga High football coach Ryan Habich an inch, and he'll take a yard. And that's just what he did last season. Habich turned Watauga into a well-oiled machine. The Pioneers, who were picked to finish last in a preseason Northwestern 3A-4A Conference poll, won eight games and were 4-3 in league play. And two
of those losses were by a mear eight points (against Freedom and Hibriten).
"We certainly snuck up on a lot of people last season," said Habich, who is 58-14 in his nine-year, head-coaching career. "We were new to our opponents. They didn't know what to expect, and we jumped on some teams."
That was the case in the season-opener, when the Pioneers ambushed Alexander Central, 34-12, at Jack Gross Stadium.
"And that's a good football team," Habich said. "We play them ten times, and they beat us nine of those times. But we pulled off a couple of trick plays, and it caught them off guard. It allowed us to build a big lead, and they couldn't come back. It's gonna be a lot different this year."
The Pioneers open the regular season in Taylorsville against the Cougars Friday night. The Cougars, led by head coach Nick Bazzle, now in his third season, were 5-7 last season. Bazzle is 122-70 in his 29-year career and 10-14 with the Cougars.
WHS (8-4 last season) also returns a veteran team (17 seniors and 12 starters). And the Pioneers bring back their biggest weapon in quarterback Aaron Dobbins, who amassed 2,411 yards and 28 touchdowns (including 24 through the air) his sophomore year. He was second in passing in the NW3A-4A last fall with 1,949 yards.
"And it all begins with the offensive line," Habich said. "And we have one of the best offensive line coaches in the state of North Carolina in Kurt Wickizer. He's done a great job with those guys. We have some guys back. It usually takes longer to get that group together. We have to be more aggressive up front. We've got to block lower, and we have to run the ball, especially in conference. It's a work in progress."
Jacob Rutz moves from guard to center, Steven Miller moves from tackle to guard, first-year player, baseball player Adam Greene, who is athletic and strong, is going to play guard; August Sauls (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), a sophomore, looks to be the favorite at right tackle; Jake Williams, WHS best lineman, will play left tackle.
"And August is probably going to win our right tackle position," Habich said. "He's worked hard and he's impressed us. It's going to be a good offensive line, and Aaron Dobbins had a great season for us last year. He was consistent and made some outstanding decisions for his age. There's no doubt, the guy can play, and he's much stronger this year.
"But this year, I'm looking for him to be more of a leader, to take control of the team. As a junior, he's more mature, and it's time for him to start being vocal, not just lead by example. Our guys respect him alot."
The biggest loss for WHS is wide out Cam Baker, a home-run threat, who graduated last spring. He caught 42 passes and he scored 14 TDs. The Pioneers also led the NW3A-4A in passing offense. They averaged a league best 189 yards a game, and they scored a league-high 26 TDs.
Junior Michael Ebaugh, who next to Dobbins, is one of WHS' top athletes, returns for his second varsity season. Ebaugh was WHS' starting safety last year. This year, he will also play wide receiver.
"But Michael Ebaugh has to be himself," Habich said. "I don't expect him to be another Cam Baker. He's a good athlete. He has good speed, good size (6-4), and he has good hands. He can be a big play guy for us. I'm excited about coaching him. We have ways of getting him the ball in open spaces."
And Ebaugh isn't alone. Elijah Temple, who has excellent speed, and wingbacks, T.J. Poulos and Nathan Ford, give WHS a legitmate passing attack.
"We want to throw a little more to our wingbacks this season," Habich said. "Nathan and T.J. can catch the ball, and they give us a breakaway threat in the open field. And Elijah has had a very good camp. He still new at it, but he's learning to run the routes. He's quick, and he's fast."
Hunter Isaacs was the incumbent at tight end before a seperated shoulder slowed him down. Isaacs, who caught 11 passes in league play last year for 220 yards and a TD, will have an MRI this week. But the "Football Gods" were looking down on WHS as the Pioneers landed a huge transfer in junior Rylee Critcher from Florida.
Critcher, from South Daytona, Fla., attended Warner Christian Academy last season. His older brother, Bentlee, a rising sophomore, is the starting punter at Appalachian State University.
"And (Rylee) is very good, and he's versatile," Habich said. "He can play tight end, we can spread him out, he can play linebacker, he's our backup quarterback, he punts, and he'll kick for us too. The guy can do it all, and he can do it very well. It's really a blessing for us, especially with Hunter banged up.
"And it's really a shame Hunter's hurt. The guy had a big year for us last year. He's one of the best tight ends in the state. The guy can explode out there. He's also one of our top linebackers. Hopefully, he can be back in four to five weeks."
And Isaacs isn't the only one as the Pioneers are nursing some injuries at the moment. Ebaugh has a sprained ankle (he was injuried in last Thursday's scrimmage at West Forsyth). "We're going to be a little banged up the first few weeks of the season," according to Habich.
But the running game is healthy with Poulos and Ford. Plus, the Pioneers have a little more depth at the B-back position with the return of senior Zach Williams (6-2, 210, who ran for 844 yards and 18 TDs) and the emergence of rising sophomore Evan Suggs, who joined the varsity late last season, and Willis Ellis.
"And it's great to have competition in practice," Habich said. "It creates more effort, and it develops depth and versatility. Zach, Evan and Willis will flank out at times, and those guys will see their share of work on defense, too. We have three pretty good B backs. Believe me, we'll find a way to get them on the field.
"And I like our balance. With us, it's being consistent every week, especially in big games. Break downs lost us a couple of games last season (against Freedom and Hibriten). We're a little banged up right now, but if we can get healthy, I feel we have the potential to be a very good team."
The Pioneers could have easily been 6-1 in league play in 2013. Hickory was the only team that legitimately pushed WHS around in a 42-27 win at "The Groce.".
"Yeah, and that's why having a full off-season in the weight room will really help us this year," Habich said. "Hickory pushed us around. They were a lot stronger than us. But I really think our defense will be a little tougher this season, especially inside."
The Pioneers coughed up an average of 256 yards-a-game on the ground (that's nearly six yards-a-carry) and 27 TDs last year. WHS was sixth in overall defense (342 yards an outing).
"And that's where the off-season really kicks in," Habich said. "We had a good number of guys show up starting in January, and we set team records in the weight room. Our lesson is teaching expectations and attitude. The majority of our guys did a tremedous job in the weight room, and their strength gains were outstanding. They got bigger and stronger."
Linebacker Dakota McCrary set a team record in the power cling at 275 pounds.
"It was a great off-season. We're a lot stronger in camp this year," Habich said. "And I like our defensive line. Jake Williams is a force. We've got depth up there. All of those guys can play. One guy I'm anxious to see is Adam Greene, who's playing for the first time. We're going to use him on the offensive and defensive lines. Jeremiah Woolridge is learning and has a good attitude. He could potentially be a solid defensive player. Dakota Finger will play up there, too. There is no one solid group right now, but they can all play.
"And Dakota is our leader at linebacker. Critcher's gonna play there, too. So will Ellis and Landry Morgan. Defense is about effort. We've got some very good athletes on our defense. But, because of injuries, we're a little thin in the defensive backfield."
Ebaugh, Poulos, Ford and Austin Northern will see time in the secondary. And despite their bumps and bruises, the Pioneers held their own against an excellent West Forsyth team (led by former WHS coach Adrian Snow) in last Thursday's scrimmage.
"And we kept things pretty vanilla on offense," Habich said. "I'm not gonna show everything in a scrimmage. But I was happy with the effort. I felt we held our own pretty well. We have a lot of guys we can move around out there."
The return game, much like WHS' running attack, is healthy and explosive (the same people mentioned above at the running back spots will return kicks). Leading the way is Poulos, who has marvelous breakaway speed in the open field.
"And he was one of our leading receivers last season," Habich said. "He made something like (41) catches. And he does a great job catching punts. We don't want the ball to hit the ground, and he does a great job with that. We want the ball in his hands. He's another big play guy for us, another weapon."
Ebaugh, when he gets healthy, will be WHS' long snapper.
"It's a good senior group," Habich said. "It's their second year with us. Unlike our seniors last year, these guys have gone through the entire process in preparing for next season. They've gotten a full circle understanding of what we expect from them.
"Our theme this year is "Perfect Effort." We had some success last year, and we have some people back from that team. Biggest thing is not getting complacent. And I believe our attitude is changing. Right now, we're not a very good football team. We sucker punched a lot of people last year. People are going to be ready for us this year. There's a lot of work to do. But we've got to stay hungry. I've done a pretty good job keeping teams hungry in the past, and that's what builds a winning program."
Coverage Friday from Taylorsville begins at 6:30 p.m., on AM 1450, WATA, and GoBlueridge.net.
2014 Watauga High Pioneer
Date Opponent Location Time
22-Aug Alexander Central Away 7:30
29-Aug Ashe County Home 7:30
12-Sep Avery Home 7:30
19-Sep Wilkes Central Away (Endowment) 7:30
26-Sep Saint Stephens Away 7:30
3-Oct Fred T. Foard Home 7:30
10-Oct Freedom Away 7:30
17-Oct Hibriten Away 7:30
24-Oct Patton Home 7:30
31-Oct Hickory Away 7:30
7-Nov South Caldwell Home 7:30
WHS Junior Varsity
Date Opponent Location Time
21-Aug Alexander Central Home 7:00
28-Aug Ashe County Away 7:00
11-Sep Avery Away 7:00
25-Sep Saint Stephens Home 7:00
2-Oct Fred T. Foard Away 7:00
9-Oct Freedom Home
16-Oct Hibriten Home 7:00
23-Oct Patton Away 7:00
30-Oct Hickory Home 7:00
6-Nov South Caldwell Away 7:00