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Watauga finds a way: 28-21 over 1A power Mitchell

BY DAVID ROGERS FOR HIGHCOUNTRYSPORTS.NET – BAKERSVILLE, N.C. — It was a battle of ‘Neers, a study in contrasting “blue collar” offensive styles. It was thrilling, Friday night football at its best — and it was especially good for Watauga football fans, whose team rallied from behind to defeat 1A powerhouse, Mitchell, 28-21.

It could easily have been a different result and that is what makes for a good football game. A costly turnover and a mental lapse by the host Mitchell Mountaineers are all that kept the 2021 state runner-up team at the 1A level from upsetting a strong 4A team in Watauga. Key difference makers: a Mitchell fumble on the opening kickoff and a well-executed onside kick by Watauga in the fourth quarter.

Both offenses were workmanlike in their approach to having possession. Passes were a rarity, even if they came at critical junctures and contributed to “moving the sticks” or, in some cases, resulted in touchdowns. Both sides seemed intent on keeping the ball on the ground and running down the clock while keeping the other team’s offense off the field.

It was ‘blackout’ night for the Pioneers’ student section, which had a terrific turnout for an away game an hour and a half away from Boone. Photo by David Rogers

But that is where the similarities start and finish. The well-coached Mitchell team takes a bludgeoning approach, with a big, athletic offensive line that dominates the line of scrimmage and a pair of powerful backs in QB Chad Giarrusso, an Avery County transfer, and RB Gage Young to take advantage. Watauga, explained head coach Ryan Habich after the game, uses a more complex, precision-based blocking scheme to get its playmakers into space. Both approaches worked on this night.

The Pioneers made short work of a short field after recovering the opening kickoff fumble, which effectively meant that the visitors would have an “extra” opportunity to work with the football barring any later turnovers. As the game unfolded into a one-score difference by the final whistle, that extra possession would prove a treasure.

 Watauga’s Maddox Greene (4) prepares to stiff-arm a Mitchell defender on Sept. 2, in the Pioneers 28-21 win in Bakersville.

After recovering the opening fumble, the Pioneers started at the Mitchell 36. Watauga used senior running back Trey Thompson to get the ball to the Mountaineers’ 28, then a gritty, 4-yard “keeper” by QB Maddox Greene to get a first down at the MIT 24.  Greene immediately moved the chains again with an 11-yard run. Senior running back Will Curtis took it the rest of the way on a 13-yard jaunt off right tackle and into space before high-stepping it into the end zone. Watauga had scored with seeming ease and Pioneer fans may have been tempted to think, “This is going to be a blowout.”

Not so fast. On its ensuing possession, Mitchell bulldozed its way through the Pioneer defense to return the scoring favor. The powerful Mountaineer ground attack kept Watauga’s offense off the field a full seven minutes before Giarrusso followed his blockers across the goal line. A straight and true PAT kick by the versatile Giarrusso knotted the score at 7-7.

All too often for Pioneer fans, Mitchell’s Gage Young (26) got into the defensive secondary behind the powerful blocking of the Mountaineer offensive line. Photo by David Rogers

Watauga returned the clock-burning favor for the remaining three-plus minutes of the first quarter and another, two-plus minutes of the second stanza. Greene, Thompson, Curtis and and Cole Horine chewed up the gridiron real estate in chunks before Curtis punched the ball into the end zone for his second TD in as many offensive possessions. Placekicker Grant Kight made good for his second PAT of the still-early night, giving Watauga a 14-7 lead.

Watauga tight end Isaiah Shirley hauls in a pass from QB Maddox Greene in Watauga’s 28-21 win over Mitchell HS, in Bakersville. Photo by David Rogers

Although Watauga had just completed a 12-play, 80-yard drive to keep Mitchell’s offensive grinders off the field for over five minutes of playing time, the Mountaineers one-upped them with another plow horse worthy drive of 13 plays that covered 65 yards and took 9:16 off the clock. They scored with just 56 seconds remaining before intermission on a 7-yard pass over the middle from Giarrusso to Enrique Huaroco. The first half fittingly ended, the scored knotted at 14-14.

The third quarter was a pushme-pullyou affair. Although Watauga chewed up almost five minutes off the game clock, the Pioneers were unable to get past their own 40-yard line on the first offensive possession of the second half before Mitchell took over.

There was no thunder and lightning in the Mountaineers’ first possession of the half. It was all thunder, with Giarrusso and Young taking turns ripping off five- and six-yard gains behind an offensive line hellbent on domination. On the eleventh play of the drive, Giarrusso tucked the ball in for a 4-yard keeper to paydirt, giving Mitchell a 21-14 lead and only 1:09 remaining in the third quarter.

Mitchell quarterback Chad Giarrusso gets across the goal line in the first half against Watauga on Sept. 2, a game the Pioneers rallied to win in the 4th quarter, 28-21.

Giarrusso’s kickoff didn’t make it to the end zone, Watauga’s Curtis fielding the ball at his 5-yard-line and producing a respectable 27-yard return. Two plays later, Cole Horine helped the Pioneers establish momentum going into the fourth quarter by finishing the third with an 18-yard carry and a first down. Watauga kept that momentum going into the final period, even overcoming an offensive holding penalty as they crossed midfield. The 13-play drive culminated with a one-yard TD plunge by Curtis, with 6:46 remaining in the game to tie the game at 21-21.

Watauga quickly got the ball back with an onside kick by Josh Bellinger, alertly recovered by Asa Nelson.

With Greene again at the helm, the Pioneers took possession at their own 45 yard line and manufactured yet another clock consuming drive, going the 55 yards in 10 plays while taking all but 1:39 off the clock. Greene scored the TD with a 2-yard keeper, while Kight was successful on the PAT kick to give Watauga a still nervous, 28-21 lead.

Watauga senior RB Trey Thompson high tails it down the sideline after getting around the perimeter on the right side, Sept. 2, in the Pioneers’ 28-21 win over Mitchell.

Pioneer fans were nervous, to be sure, when a short kickoff and a 28-yard return by the Mountaineers’ Young presented a short field opportunity for Mitchell’s offense to try to tie the game and send it to probable overtime. Two false start penalties didn’t help the home team’s cause, however. With 38 seconds remaining and a first-and-10 on the Watauga 39-yard line, Giarrusso lofted a pass intended for Huaroco on the left side. The Pioneer defense applied a lot of pressure as Giarrusso was looking to pass and he got a little too much air under it. Greene, playing cornerback on defense, took advantage and leaped in front of Huaroco for the game-securing interception.

“The only way we were going to stop them was by getting an onside kick,” said Watauga head coach Ryan Habich, afterwards, “because we were not stopping them (defensively). They whipped us up front. They controlled the ball.”

Habich reinforced the idea that although the results might be the same, the two offenses are substantially different.

Mitchell’s Enrique Huaroco (32) waits in the end zone for a pass from QB Chad Giarrusso on Sept. 2. In spite of the play, visiting Watauga outlasted the Mountaineers, 28-21. Photo by David Rogers

“Our offense is more about options with more trickery,” said Habich. “Theirs is more about running right at you and they ran right at us. We couldn’t stop them, but I am proud of our guys for finding ways to win. This was a good football team that we played tonight.”

On the losing side, Mitchell head coach Travis Pitman was blunt.

“It sucks to lose. We don’t like to lose,” said Pitman. “Our team played well with a backup quarterback, a guy who had never before played a varsity game. We did a lot of great things and we have to build off those, but we also have to get better. One game does not make a season.”

In assessing Watauga’s performance and any difference makers, Pitman noted, “Number one they have a senior who is going to NC State (TE/DE Isaiah Shirley). I don’t have that kid.  They also have some kids who are faster than mine. And they are coached as good as my kids. At the end of the day, whoever makes the least number of mistakes is going win and we made the most mistakes.”

Next week, Mitchell hosts Andrews High School, a 52-6 victor over North Buncombe on Sept. 2 and coming to Bakersville with a 3-0 record. Watauga stays on the road visiting Lawndale, N.C., to play against Burns. The Bulldogs lost on Sept. 2 to Kings Mountain, 27-0, but defeated Crest, 35-12 a week earlier, and Forestview, 42-0, on Aug. 19.


  • Total Offense — WAT 317 yards, MIT 217
  • Time of Possession — WAT 29:36, MIT 18-24
  • Rush Attempts/Yards — WAT 46-300, MIT 32-197
  • Passing Yards — WAT 17, MIT 30
  • Turnovers — WAT 0, MIT 2
  • 3rd Down Conversions — WAT 6/10 (60%), MIT 4/6 (67%)
  • 4th Down Conversions — WAT 2/2 (100%), MIT 1/1 (100$)
  • Penalties — WAT 4-40, MIT 5-25



  • MIT Chad Giarrusso: 3/28 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • WAT Maddox Greene: 5/17-26 yards


  • WAT Maddox Greene: 20-146, 1 TD
  • MIT Chad Giarrusso: 22-123, 2 TDs
  • MIT Gage Young: 9-64
  • WAT Will Curtis: 11-59, 3 TDs
  • WAT Trey Thompson: 8-47
  • WAT Cole Horine: 5-41


  • MIT Dalton Hollifield: 2-23
  • WAT Isaiah Shirley: 2-10
  • WAT Cole Horine: 2-6
  • MIT Enrique Huaroco: 1-7, 1 TD
  • WAT Will Curtis: 1-1