Pioneers host Porter Ridge tonight
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Watauga went down to Porter Ridge in 2012 and took a 69-0 beating at the hands of the Pirates. One year later, Porter Ridge makes the return trip to Boone for a showdown in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs.
This year, both teams are different. Watauga is 8-3 and could easily be 10-1 had just two plays turned out differently. Watauga has a new coach in Ryan Habich and an offense that has scored more than 40 points five times this year.
"The good thing about us is we're the underdog," Habich said. "Nobody expects us to play with them close, so our kids believe they can do it. Our motto this week is believe that you can do it. They have to come to Watauga unlike last year, when we had to make that bus trip to Porter Ridge."
It's also an offense that has churned out two game-winning drives against two teams that also made the playoffs. Watauga beat Patton 24-20 and South Caldwell 22-21 with drives inside of four minutes. Both games were on the road.
Habich said quarterback Aaron Dobbins, who was a freshman quarterback against Porter Ridge in 2012, played a big role in both comebacks against Patton and South Caldwell.
"He did a great job of taking control of the offense, no panicking and making the throws he needed to make," Habich said. "Our guys made some nice catches, the line protected well and the whole offense stayed together and moved the ball down the field and scored with 55 seconds left in the game. It's the same with Patton. You have to win big games on the road."
Porter Ridge has also seen some changes.
Blair Hardin, the coach who led the Pirates to back-to-back Western 4-A Regional titles, is now the head coach at Freedom.
In his place is Greg Nuendorf.
Hardin was 40-5 at Porter Ridge. Nuendorf is 7-4 this season, playing in the Southwestern 4-A Conference, one of the toughest in North Carolina.
Porter Ridge, the only non-Mecklenburg County program in the conference, lost 55-6 to powerful Butler and 20-0 on the final game of the season to Rocky River, which was co-champ with Butler. The Pirates also fell to Mount Tabor and Sun Valley during the nonconference season.
The winner of the Watauga-Porter Ridge game takes on the winner of the Rocky River-Reagan game on Nov. 22.
Habich said the Pioneers believe they can compete with Porter Ridge. Watauga was a missed extra point away and then a fourth-down incomplete pass in overtime from beating Freedom, which won the NWC and is the No. 1 seed in the 3-AA playoff bracket.
Watauga also missed on a pass play on a two-point conversion in a 45-44 loss to Hibriten, which also finished 10-1 this season.
"We played Freedom very close and they're a No. 1 seed in the 3-AA playoffs," Habich said. "We got some breaks against Freedom, but that's our game plan going in against Porter Ridge. They are a very athletic football team and play in probably the best conference in North Carolina. But if we play well and we execute, we think we can give them some problems."
Porter Ridge's offense is led by Isaiah Hicklin, who did not play against Rocky River because of a concussion, but should play tonight against the Pioneers. He's thrown for 1,645 yards and 13 touchdowns, and also ran for 268 yards and four TDs.Hicklin has plenty of options to throw to in receivers Casey Hardison, A.J. Barrett and Luke Bayly. The trio has caught 89 of Hicklin's 104 completions and racked up 1,518 yards receiving among themselves.
Bayly is the top target with 34 catches for 526 yards and four touchdowns.
Hardison has 32 receptions for 524 yards and three TDs, while Barrett has caught 23 passes for 468 yards and four scores.
Habich said the Pioneers would have to greatly limit their mistakes and force some turnovers if they want to beat the Pirates.
"We've got to play mistake-free football, we've got to hold on to the football and we're going to have to get some turnovers on them, too," Habich said. "We're going to have to strip the ball and give our offense some field position. Those are the keys to the game for us."