RALEIGH — It’s been a long time since the 1AA ranks of North Carolina high school football have seen a team as dominant as the Tarboro Vikings.
It was probably of little solace to Mount Airy that the Granite Bears played Tarboro tougher than anyone else did this season in falling 32-7 to the East Regional champions on Saturday night at N.C. State University’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
“That’s the best team we’ve played all year,” said Mount Airy head coach Kelly Holder. “Really, that’s the best 1A team I’ve seen in a while. We played well enough defensively to have a chance to win, but offensively, we just didn’t get it done. They had a lot to do with that, so hats off to them.”
No team had come closer than a 28-point margin of victory against top-ranked Tarboro all season, but there were hopes for a more competitive game in the state finals, where Mount Airy had matched the Vikings’ 14-0 record coming in. Indeed, the Granite Bears were only down 12-0 at halftime, and really should have been closer than that — one of the two Tarboro touchdowns came after a botched punt, something that Mount Airy had not done all season, but managed to do twice in Saturday’s game. Both of the plays were turned into easy touchdowns by Tarboro.
The Vikings (15-0) also forced turnovers on two Mount Airy drives into Tarboro territory and eventually took both of those for scores as well. The Bears’ defense did its job, holding Tarboro, which averaged 398 yards and 51 points per game coming into the night, well under its averages. But Mount Airy made too many mistakes to win a game against such an outstanding opponent.
“I think there will always be a “what if?” in my mind,” said Mount Airy quarterback Ian Holder. “What if I hadn’t thrown that pick in the fourth quarter, things like that. But we’re still the best in West, and there are a lot of positives we can take from this. We worked our tail off to get here.”
The last 1AA team to perform in such a dominant fashion over the course of a season was, ironically, the 2008 Mount Airy team, which outscored its opponents 845-94 and whose closest call was a 23-point win in the state championship game.
As for the Vikings, the younger Holder had just one thing to say: “They’re insanely good.”
Saturday’s battle was billed as a showdown of two offensive powerhouses, but the first quarter was dominated by the defense on both sides of the ball. The Vikings got the ball first, picked up one first down and then were forced to punt. The Bears did likewise. Then Mount Airy’s defense forced a straight three-and-out and got the ball back for their offense with 2:13 left in the opening period.
This time, the Bear offense seemed to be clicking. Johnathon Smith had a 22-yard gain to near midfield on second down, and then Ian Holder hit Tanner Jackson for 10 yards and a first down at the Tarboro 41-yard line. He found Jackson again at the 28 on the next play, but the Bears made their first mistake here, as they had a lineman downfield. After a false start made it first-and-20 at the Mount Airy 49, Holder threw deep for Donavon Greene and was intercepted by Tarboro’s Devonta Davis at the 12.
Now Tarboro’s vaunted T-formation attack — a hallmark of Viking football for six decades — began to roll. Four runs moved the ball to the Tarboro 43-yard line, and then Deontae Williams finally broke containment and rumbled down to the Bears’ 10 on the fourth play of the second quarter. It only took them two more plays to score from there, with Keon Caudle taking it six yards to paydirt with 9:32 left in the quarter. Mount Airy blocked the extra point to leave the score at 6-0.
The Bears then donated six more points to Tarboro two and a half minutes later. They got a first down, but then bogged down near midfield and were forced to punt from the Vikings’ 49. However, Mount Airy long-snapper Corbin Robertson, one of the top prospects in the state at that position, seemed to struggle with the slick turf at Carter-Finley all night. He uncorked an errant snap that went over the head of punter Robert Brown. Amazingly, Brown ran the ball down and got a punt off anyway, but kicked a line drive right to Tarboro’s Jyron Albritton, who caught it on the run and sprinted 36 yards to the end zone. The Bears stuffed a try for two points, but still trailed 12-0 with seven minutes left in the first quarter.
Both sides had one more series of downs before the half. Mount Airy couldn’t do anything with it, while Tarboro drove to the Bears’ 32 before the defense halted them and forced the Vikings to punt with just two seconds left in the first half.
Tarboro ran 23 plays in the first half and outgained Mount Airy 153-83, but didn’t attempt a single pass.
The first four offensive series of the third quarter were another clinic put on by two of the state’s best defenses. The Bears went three-and-out, and then the Vikings did the same. Then the cycle repeated. For the Mount Airy defense, whose first-string had allowed well under 100 points all season coming in, these two series may have been its finest hour of the season. The first drive started at the Mount Airy 38-yard line after a long punt return byCaudle. Tarboro’s second chance began at the Bears’ 35. But furious defense led by senior linebacker Grey Tucker and senior lineman Zachary Smith stuffed the Vikings both times. Tarboro had just six yards of total offense in the third quarter.
With 4:53 left in the third and the score still at just 12-0, the Bears tried to fight back. Tarboro’s Winston Johnson punted the ball down to the Mount Airy 16. On third down, Holder hit Greene for 19 yards and a first down. On the next series, he connected with Cole Shelton for 15 yards on third down, giving the Bears another set of downs at their 48. Three runs by Holder and Smith moved the ball to the Tarboro 40 as the quarter was winding down.
But that was as far as Mount Airy would go. The next three plays saw the Bears go backward 12 yards, and Mount Airy had to punt it back to the Vikings.
At this point, the physicality of the Tarboro team, which outweighed the Bears on the line by an average of about 25 pounds per man, and which had less two-way players, finally took its toll. The Vikings lined up and battered their way 83 yards in just eight plays, extending their lead to 18-0 on a one-yard run by Williams with 6:38 remaining.
But no one could say the Bears didn’t fight back. After the Tarboro touchdown, Holder hit Jackson for nine, then Jeremiah Rosser for 14 and a first down at the Tarboro 36. Two plays later, he threw long for Greene, who was double-covered running down the visitors- side of the field. But Greene still managed to haul in the pass and make it to the end zone. Brown’s extra point made it 18-7 with 5:50 to play.
“We wanted to stop (Greene),” said Tarboro head coach Jeff Craddock, who said that containing the Bears’ biggest playmaker had been a priority for his team coming in. “We didn’t completely stop him, he had that great catch.”
Brown then dribbled an onside kick down the middle of the field and pounced on it just seconds ahead of a Tarboro player at the Vikings’ 49-yard line. Could a late rally be in the works?
“(Mount Airy) wasn’t going to quit,” Craddock said. “You had to figure they were making a run. I knew (Brown) was a great kicker and he made a play.”
Unfortunately, Tarboro had plenty of great players of its own.
On second-and-3 at the 42, Holder tried to throw into the right flat, but Tarboro’s Zion Brooks broke on the ball and picked it off.
“We had too many plays where we put ourselves into situations that we couldn’t get out of,” said Coach Holder.
From there, the rest of the night was academic. Caudle ran for 35 yards and a first down at the Mount Airy 18 on the next play. Williams dashed into the end zone two plays later against an exhausted Bear defense, making it 25-7 with 4:10 remaining.
Tarboro added one more score after a three-and-out by Mount Airy’s offense was followed by a punt. Or at least an attempt at one. Brown couldn’t handle the snap, tried to punt anyway with a Tarboro player in his face, and had it blocked. The Vikings got the ball on the Mount Airy 8 and Jaquez Edge scored from eight yards out with 3:32 left.
“Those are the only two bad punts we’ve had all season,” said Coach Holder. “I’ve never seen Corbin Robertson have a bad snap before. I don’t know if the weather affected us, but he’s been spot-on all year.”
The game ended with the reserves on both sides getting a chance to play in a state championship game.
Tarboro outgained Mount Airy 300-175 on the night and never got a pass off. Williams led the Vikings with 119 yards on 12 carries, while Clifton Joyner Jr. had 90 yards on 10 carries. For Mount Airy, Greene led everyone with 68 yards on three catches, while Brown carried the ball 14 times for 56 yards. Defensively, Tucker had 11 tackles, Greene nine, Smith seven and Benjamin Reales six.
Tucker was named the Most Outstanding Defensive Player for the Bears, and Ian Holder won the MOP award for the offense. Williams was named as the MVP of the game, with Albritton as Tarboro’s MOP on defense and Joyner on offense.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.