Esprit de corps
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
First and foremost, there was the football game played between visiting Hickory and Watauga, which Hickory won 42-27. It was also Senior Night for Watauga's eight senior players, who were honored before the game.
A 60-foot flag was unfurled before the Watauga band played the Star Spangled Banner, and fans were also encouraged to bring canned food items for both people in the community in need and food for the animals at the Watauga Humane Society.
But aside from the game itself, the big attraction was to honor a group of alumni who had played some of the best football ever seen at Watauga High School. The 1978 state 3-A championship football team, which went 13-0-1 during its special season, was honored during its 35th anniversary by the Watauga athletic department and the school's administration.
The 2006 and 2007 teams were also honored by the athletic department. Those teams reached the state 4-A Western Regional finals, which is one game away from a state championship game title berth.
"It was a great bond with a group of young men," coach Bill Mauldin said of his players from the 1978 team that is still the only Watauga football team to win a state championship. "They were friends, still are friends, and they still keep up with each other. They believed in each other and that's the kind of stuff that lasts forever."
On top of that, two of the football program's all-time best players, who also happened to be a key player from each era, were honored.
The jersey numbers of Danny Triplett's, who wore No. 82, and Eric Breitenstein, who wore No. 2, were permanently retired. No other Watauga player will wear those numbers again.
Breitenstein said having his number retired is an honor, especially when he and Triplett are the only two players in the history of the program to have that happen.
"When it really hits you the most is that there are only 99 options," Breitenstein said. "They are taking two out tonight. It's pretty cool just to be in the company of (Triplett). Oh man, he's unreal. Are you kidding me? It's a big deal."
Triplett, who is in the timber business in Bristol, Tenn., was a mainstay on the Watauga defense in 1978. He earned a scholarship to Clemson after being recruited by nearly every major school in the region.
He did not stop with a state championship in North Carolina. He also was a key element of Clemson's national championship team in 1981.
Triplett was drafted in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Rams, and played three seasons in the NFL with the Rams, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
"I'm getting old," Triplett said about his reaction to having his number retired. "You're getting old when they start retiring you. It's a privilege. I want to thank everybody in the community and my teammates and coach and everything."
Triplett did not get to play in the state title game in 1978, which Watauga beat Burlington Williams 33-28 on a cold night in Boone.
A week earlier against Thomasville in the semifinals, Triplett broke his arm making a tackle and had to watch from the sidelines.
Triplett confessed that it was hard to watch the championship game instead of playing in it, but he stayed focused on the game anyway and offered his help every way he could.
"It hurt, but I trusted in my teammates and I believed in my teammates," he said. "I cheered like a devil over there, so no big deal."
Both Triplett and Mauldin remembered that longtime rival South Caldwell was as big of a handful for the Pioneers to deal with in the late 1970s as the Spartans are 35 years later.
Watauga's 2013 team plays at South Caldwell this Friday in the final game of the regular season. The Spartans are 5-5 overall, 3-3 in the NWC, but have also won three of their last four games.
"We had some long knock-down, drag-outs with South Caldwell," Triplett said.
Breitenstein was a four-year starter with Watauga from 2004-07. He became the program's all-time leading rusher with 6,151 yards. Breitenstein was all state at safety as a junior and at running back as a senior.
Breitenstein's father, Steve Breitenstein, was an assistant coach on the 1978 team and on the 2006 and 2007 teams.
"It's really nice to look back and reminisce," Eric Breitenstein said. "They had the film going up and that was special to see."
Eric Breitenstein went on to set the school record for rushing at Wofford during his four years with the Terriers.
He was the two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year and the Male Athlete of the Year in the SoCon in 2013.
Permanent markers were added to the state title marker on the wall of the Carroll Leather Fieldhouse at Jack Groce Stadium to honor Triplett, Breitenstein and Bill Mauldin, the coach of the 1978 Pioneers.
All of the football players who could make it to Watauga High, including Mauldin and Adrian Snow, the coach of the 2006-07 Watauga editions, sat down to a barbeque dinner before kickoff Friday.
Snow, the current coach at West Forsyth, was able to attend since West Forsyth had a bye Friday night.
"It's well deserved," Snow said of Breitenstein's honor. "The cool thing is that there probably isn't a guy on this team who ever played with him who doesn't think that he needs it. He's such a great player and such a great competitor, but he was such a great teammate. He's what you wanted as a coach."
Breitenstein's coach at Wofford, Mike Ayers, also attended the dinner and the game.
"I think coach Ayers being here, and coach (defensive coordinator Jack) Teachy being here, it's really special just to have them here and just this whole event -- I really appreciate the state championship team kind of letting us piggy-back here and eat some food and here some of their stories," Breitenstein said. "They have some incredible stories."
There were also some good words spoken by the alumni about the current Pioneers, who are 7-3 overall, 3-3 in the Northwestern Conference.
They had good things to say about coach Ryan Habich, who had brought an attitude of confidence and winning that they 1978 team and the 2006-07 teams had while at Watauga.
"Coach Habich has done a good job of showing what's possible if you guys can come together," Breitenstein said. "This is just another night where if it all comes together, it can be a really special time."
It was also Senior Night for eight current Pioneers playing their final regular season game at home Friday. Zach Tomer, Jacob Watson, Austin Dyer, Adam Goetz, Stephen Shirley, Jackson Carr, Avery Gonzalez, Cameron Baker and Aaron Spencer were all honored before the game.