BOONE — The Watauga football team returns to the western regional finals for the first time since 2007, when the Pioneers were in the 4-A classification.
The Pioneers’ opponent on Dec. 6 is a familiar one and not a 4-A team. Instead, Watauga (13-1), the No. 2 seed in the 3-AA western regional, faces No. 1-seeded Weddington at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 6. The winner plays for the state 3-AA championship against the eastern regional champion at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Weddington (14-0), the defending 3-AA state champion, beat Watauga 42-14 in the third round of the 2018 playoffs. The Pioneers scored on their first drive, but Weddington scored on its first three drives to take a 21-7 halftime lead.
Watauga coach Ryan Habich has seen film on Weddington, but he feels the need to correct mistakes made in their 34-13 win over visiting Mount Tabor the previous weekend is just as important as knowing what to expect from Weddington. Habich feels if those mistakes are not fixed, then Watauga faces a long night against Weddington.
“We focus more on ourselves and what we need to do to get better,” Habich said. “The better teams you play, the better you have to be at what you do. Really good teams expose you if you’re not doing it right. Sometimes you can play lesser competition and you get away with not doing things the way you should be doing it and still be successful, but when you play better competition, the room for error is even smaller.”
Watauga has handled its three state playoffs opponents. After building a 27-13 lead, the Pioneers added a defensive touchdown on an interception return by Eli Towle to finish off Mount Tabor. Watauga, after winning its second-straight Northwestern Conference championship, beat Cuthbertson 61-21 in the first round of the playoffs and beat Kannapolis Brown 55-27 in the second.
Weddington, which won the Southern Carolina Conference, including a 49-0 win over Cuthbertson, is no stranger to piling up dominating numbers. The Warriors outscored seven league opponents 333-23 and 14 overall opponents 621-76. Weddington has won two out of the last three state championships it played, including last season’s 27-14 win over Southeast Guilford.
Habich also pointed out that Weddington has outscored three playoff opponents 140-13, including No. 3-seeded Northwest Cabarrus 49-7 on Nov. 29.
“They are probably the No. 1 team in the state,” Habich said. “That’s what most people are saying. They’re a good team and our kids respect that. You look at their team and what players they have and what you can expose and the key part is you have to look at yourself and what you’re doing and what you’re able to control. As much as you want to, we can’t control Weddington and all their players. We’ve got to focus on ourselves.”
Weddington’s top weapon, running back Will Shipley, returns for his junior season. Shipley, who scored three touchdowns against Watauga last season, is the biggest part of the Warriors’ offense, and can also play defense.
Shipley, according to 247sports.com, has received interest from Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida, Georgia, Penn State, Oregon, Tennessee and has been recruited by Wisconsin by former App State running back John Settle.
“Their offense is good because when he gets a crease — he’s the fastest player in the state — so if you give him a cutback lane or a gap, if you don’t fit that gap or if you miss a tackle, he can go 80 or 90 yards for a touchdown,” Habich said. “It’s real important that our run fit defense is where it needs to be and that we are playing assignment football. We’ve done a better job tackling over the last four or five weeks and our defense has really improved, but our run defense has to be good.”
Habich said despite a solid performance against Mount Tabor, the Pioneers must play better against Weddington to have a chance of winning. He would like to see the Pioneers block better on the perimeter, where they struggled blocking against a fast Mount Tabor defense.
Habich added that Watauga will have to block better along the interior line, even though running back Jake Watson ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns against Mount Tabor. Habich said Weddington has speed comparable to Mount Tabor and might be more physical than the Spartans.
“Mount Tabor was a very good football team. For us, we’re playing probably the best team in the state. We’re going to have to improve a lot.”
Habich said the Pioneers will continue to do the same things that have worked the first 14 games of the season. The Pioneers’ veer-option offense has generated two 1,000-yard rushers, including quarterback Anderson Castle, who has gained 2,135 yards and scored 35 touchdowns in the Pioneers’ 14 games.
Jaiden Bond has added 1,591 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on 103 carries. Running back Jake Watson has added 738 yards and scored 21 touchdowns on 114 carries after taking over the position in the fourth game of the season for the injured Bryce Satterfield.
Overall, Watauga averages 51.7 points per game.
Habich does not expect the Pioneers to break big plays against a tough Weddington defense, but said the key to Watauga scoring is not to make key mistakes.
“They’re so aggressive on defense,” Habich said. “It’s kind of like playing against 11 Jake Watsons on defense. You’ve got to get positive yardage, but that’s the goal for us every weekend. You have to make sure the third downs are manageable.”