Watauga's football team takes on Patriots
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
The Patriots are longtime rivals with the Pioneers. The teams have a history when both were longtime members of the Northwestern Conference. Freedom (5-1, 2-0 NWC) holds a 28-7-1 overall edge, but the Pioneers (6-0, 2-0 NWC) won two of the last three matchup.
The last time the teams played, which was in 2008, Freedom rallied from a 17-10 deficit to claim a 24-17 victory at the old Jack Groce Stadium.
Realignment, combined with two new high schools being built in Burke County, took Freedom out of the NWC. The Patriots spent the last four years as a 2-A program before another realignment put them back as a 3-A and in the NWC.
Watauga coach Ryan Habich has plenty of respect for Freedom, but also feels that if the Pioneers can play as a team, they have a chance of winning Friday night.
"We're not individuals, we're a team," Habich said. "If you get a bunch of people playing as a team, you can pull some big upsets."
Watauga faces Hibriten a week later, which is tied with the Pioneers and Freedom for first place in the NWC. Habich knows that the next two weeks will go a long way in determining the direction of the Pioneers' season.
He said that although his team is young, it's getting better each week and looks forward to the challenge.
"We want to play in these games at the highest level," Habich said. "It's a process to get there. It's the preparations during the offseason and making sure your strength level is where it needs to be. We're not as strong as we need to be, but we're going to get there. A lot of that preparation is making sure the kids feel they can win. Amazing things can happen when you play as a team."
Freedom also has a new coach, but it is a coach Watauga is familiar with. Blair Hardin takes over the program after coaching at Porter Ridge the last five seasons.
Hardin, who was 50-18 at Porter Ridge, coached the Pirates to a 69-0 victory over Watauga in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs in 2012. Porter Ridge, located in western Union County, reached the state 4-A finals last season.
All of that is in the past. Watauga goes into the tough stretch of its schedule after blasting NWC rivals Fred T. Foard 48-10 last week and St. Stephens 42-21 on Sept. 27. The Pioneers have scored at least 42 points in four of their six games, which includes a 57-36 win over Avery on Sept. 13.
Freedom can also score plenty of points. The Patriots have scored at least 45 points in four of its five victories, including a 65-14 win over Fred T. Foard.
The Patriots feature preseason all-state receiver Khris Gardin, who caught 64 passes for 1,157 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012. Gardin also plays in the Patriots'secondary, which includes solid players in Chris Bridges and B.J. Emmons.
It brings up an interesting matchup. Watauga's offense is led by quarterback Aaron Dobbins, who likes to throw to Cam Baker and T.J. Poulos. Tight end Hunter Isaacs is also a threat to catch the ball for the Pioneers.
The Patriots also have four seniors on a big offensive line, which is a physical line that could present the Pioneers' defense with plenty of problems.
"We're still a young football team and we're not where we need to be, but our kids are improving," Habich said. "It's a big one Friday. They're bigger, they're stronger and they're faster than we are, so it's like we told our kids. You can beat teams like that, but you've got to out execute them."