WEST JEFFERSON — With one last non-conference game to play, the Watauga Pioneers football team is heading up to face an old rival in the first of two games this season.
Friday, Sept. 17, will see a Pioneers team (2-2) — coming off of a gauntlet run of opponents — take on the Ashe County Huskies (0-2) in West Jefferson. For years, the neighboring schools have been locking horns as rivals, but this year adds a new dimension with Ashe joining the Northwestern 3A/4A conference alongside Watauga.
When looking at the Huskies, Pioneers head coach Ryan Habich was quick to point out the air raid offense Ashe head coach Brian Hampton has implemented.
“They have a really unique offense and big things can happen,” Habich said. “They beat us in 2014. I’ll never let the kids forget about that.”
The 2021 version of the Huskies includes quarterback Wesley Thompson, who put up 337 yards and four passing touchdowns against Wilkes Central.
Watauga goes into the game after a comeback win against Burns, while Ashe will try to shake off a 55-0 drubbing from Mount Airy. However, Habich emphasized how the Pioneers cannot go into Huskies’ house and expect a win, having seen other teams do that against Watauga in recent weeks.
“Mitchell thought that because we got blown out by Maiden, that they’d come here and blow us out. We gave them a game last week — we should have won — and Burns was probably thinking the same thing,” Habich said. “They probably come up here thinking, ‘Hey, you know, they lost two in a row.’ Maybe they took us for granted.”
He added that first and foremost, Watauga needs to worry about Watauga.
“We have to focus on fixing our mistakes because we had a ton of mistakes (against Burns),” Habich said. “I like the attitude and the effort, but we’ve got to be getting better at the fundamentals on all sides of ball.”
While Watauga was able to dominate possession against Burns with their ground-and-pound style of play, they only converted on two of their 12 third downs. At the same time, 53 of their 59 plays on offense were on the ground, not getting much out of the few times they went to the air.
Through their four games, the passing attack has been a secondary focus for the Pioneers, but a revolving door at quarterback has not helped. Starter Carlton Horine went down in preseason and made his return to the field in a cameo against Burns before hurting his hand on defense.
“(Horine’s) also playing defense and he banged his hand and couldn’t grip the football,” Habich said. “If Horine’s hand is okay, we should see a lot more of him at quarterback. We have to get good at running the football, running our offense. I thought we got better, but we got to be able to make sure we can run the offense and that opens up the passing game, the play action. We’re still not great, but we want to be where we can score every time we get the ball.”
While the plan is for Horine to be the guy, the Pioneers are not lacking at depth under center. Wyatt Keller — who took a majority of the snaps against Burns and Mitchell — and Levi Temple have been playing in his Horine’s stead. Adding to the mix is freshman Maddox Greene, the JV quarterback who stood out as a cornerback for the varsity squad against Burns.
Greene and Horine’s additions are emblematic of another key part of the Pioneers moving forward, an increased depth across the board. As the Pioneers wind down their non-conference schedule, the team that has spent most of the season shifting players and changing faces is now close to a final product that Habich feels confident in.
“It’s good when you get more guys that can play and you know, if one guy’s not playing well or struggling with certain things, you can move next guy in there,” Habich said.
He noted Temple as an example of how the team’s depth in some positions has been strengthening the entire squad. Temple started against Maiden at quarterback, but now splits time between linebacker and the B-back positions, two areas of need earlier in the year.
After Ashe, the Pioneers will begin conference play against South Caldwell on Oct. 1. Their five games in the league will culminate in a rematch with the Huskies on Oct. 29 for the final game of the year.