Hickory spoils Watauga's Senior Night
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
On a night when Watauga celebrated the best the program had ever had, the 2013 Pioneers struggled in a 42-27 loss to Hickory in a Northwestern Conference showdown at Jack Groce Stadium.
Watauga's 1978 state 3-A championship team celebrated its 35th anniversary and both Danny Triplett and Eric Breitenstein both had the numbers retired. It was also Senior Night for the Pioneers.
It was also a special night for Hickory running back Jahiz Linebarger, but for a different reason. The senior running back was nearly unstoppable in the Red Tornadoes' 42-28 victory over Watauga Friday night.
Linebarger stunned Watauga's by returning a kickoff 93 yards in the third quarter after the Pioneers drove 66 yards on seven plays capped by a 1-yard plunge by Zach Williams. Williams' touchdown, scored on the first drive of the second half, pulled the Pioneers (7-3, 3-3 NWC) to within 21-14 and nearly erased a tough first half that saw the Red Tornadoes (6-4, 4-2) take a 21-7 halftime lead.
But Linebarger struck back with a kickoff return that put the Red Tornadoes up 28-14.
"They were athletic and obviously you have to give them credit," Pioneers coach Ryan Habich said. "I don't think we played our best game. I think we played sloppy in all phases, offensively, defensive and special teams. A lot of their big plays were because we were not disciplined, and that falls back on me."
"It was toughest to cover that outside," Watauga linebacker Landry Morgan said. "We really could not get that outside contain. By the time I could get there to contain the outside and force them inside, they had already gained five yards."
Linebarger's return was nearly neutralized when Watauga drove down to the Hickory 10-yard line, but the Pioneers could not convert a fourth-and-3. Hickory took over, drove 90 yards, and capped its drive with a 1-yard run by Isiah Bane. That score gave the Red Tornadoes a 35-14 lead with 8:27 left in the game.
"Coming into the game, we feature the tailback in our offense," Hickory coach Mike Helms said. "We've got three or four, but our main guy was Jahiz Linebarger. Jahiz, in my opinion, is one of the best players in the conference. He's just gotten better this year."
Watauga quarterback Aaron Dobbins connected with Cam Baker for two fourth quarter touchdowns, the final one being a 30-yard strike after time had run out. Hickory kept the Pioneers at arm's length with a 1-yard touchdown run by backup runner Terrin Rowland with 43.8 seconds left in the game, which gave the Red Tornadoes a 42-21 lead.
Dobbins connected with Baker for three touchdown passes in the game. He also found the senior receiver for a 37-yard touchdown with 1:06 left in the first half, which brought the Pioneers to 21-7.
Watauga's defense struggled to stop Hickory's running game, especially in the first quarter. Hickory cranked out a 12-play, 80-yard drive with 10 running plays setting up a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jaquan Crawford to Brandon Helms.
The Red Tornadoes scored on their next drive, a 13-time, 79-yard drive that was once again set up with 11 running plays. Again, Crawford threw for the touchdown, this time to Nate Surbaugh for a 5-yard score.
Hickory took a 21-0 lead on a pick six by the Red Tornadoes' Darian Jolly.
"I just threw it late," Dobbins said. "After I threw it, it was like this isn't good. He broke on the ball."
Watauga closes out the regular season on Nov. 8 at longtime Northwestern Conference rival South Caldwell. The Spartans are one of two NWC teams -- Freedom is the other -- that beat Hickory this season.