First Posted: 12/24/2009
It might not have ended ideally, but it was a good ride.
While the Mount Airy Granite Bears werent able to secure the schools first-ever repeat state football titles, coach Kelly Holder and his team once again caught the eye of not only a city but a region.
The only team from the Northwest area to make a deep playoff run, the Bears once again became a focal point for high school football followers around the state.
And for good reason.
A 31-game win streak, a third consecutive Northwest Conference title and the continuation of what has been one of the strongest four-year runs in the areas athletic history were all reasons why the Mount Airy Bears found themselves in the spotlight.
In normal fashion as of late, the Bears dominated conference competition, winning all 11 games by more than two touchdowns.
The Big One, a regular season ending 30-6 win over arch-nemisis East Surry in Pilot Mountain was one of the most anticipated and publicized games of the football season in Western North Carolina.
The season began with questions abounding, but seniors such as Luke Wheeler, Andy Temoney, Brooks Mayberry, Justin Collier, Daryl Valentine, Tyler Hull and Stephen Hart all personified the recent Granite Bear Way of success.
All of those questions were answered quickly, as the Bears began the season with an emphatic win over a tough Starmount team in week one and then a gutsy 28-21 triumph over traditionally-powerful Thomasville. The win over the Bulldogs was a feather in the cap for the Bears, who have had to listen to the They dont play nobody line for three seasons, not to mention having lost to the Bulldogs during their improbable playoff run in 2006.
After Thomasville came a home rout over Ashe County (52-7) along with a non-conference win at 3A Parkwood (47-16), setting up the Bears first home conference test of the season against West Stokes.
A hyped game from the beginning of the season, West Stokes may have insinuated prior to the game that Mount Airy was less than what many have made them out to be.
It was the Bears who had the last laugh.
After 28 combined first quarter points and a first-half deficit, Mount Airy went on a tear to outscore West Stokes 29-0 the rest of the game on the way to a 60-21 romp.
Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder said he thought his team looked at the matchup with special interest and wanted to prove a point, not only to themselves but to their doubters.
Our kids took this game as a mission, Holder said shortly after the game. There was a whole lot of talk about this game and we really try to stay as far away from that as we can, but I think they that they really wanted to play well and play hard and out-hit these guys tonight and I think we did.
Granite Bears senior running back Andy Temoney agreed.
Temoney ran hard all night and finished with 129 yards rushing on 16 carries for three touchdowns.
If a team calls another team not physical, thats a disrespect, Temoney said at the time. Its like telling somebody theyre not hard enough, or they dont go hard every play. Thats basically calling us out, so we had to step up to the challenge from the get-go.
Three more routs, a 47-20 win over Surry Central, a 54-0 Homecoming win over North Stokes and a 66-0 shellacking of rival North Surry, the largest margin of defeat in the 51-game history of the matchup, and the Bears prepared for what became their toughest conference game in two seasons.
Bishop McGuinness provided Mount Airy with a little wake up call, forcing the Bears to respond to some of their own big-play medicine.
Justin Collier started the scoring for the Bears with an 18-yard touchdown reception from Ben Hinson, but the Villains came back with a 4-yard first quarter run by quarterback Josh Rathburn, then took a 14-8 lead in the second quarter on a blazing 92-yard pass from Rathburn to Marty DeFrancesco, Mount Airys longest allowed play the entire season.
But Wheeler then caught a 15-yard pass from Hinson to take the lead back for Mount Airy, followed by a Hinson 7-yard run with just eight seconds left in the half for a 22-14 lead, perhaps the most crucial play in the game.
In addition to allowing Bishop to get the jump on them, the Bears also fumbled three times, but rode Hinson and a second half shutout to the win.
Hinson finished 9 of 13 passing for 141 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed seven times for 45 yards and a score.
Youve got to make plays when you need to and we did that, Holder said following the win. But Im going to tell you, they really prepared for us. They all aint easy and this was definitely good for us, it really was. They played extremely well and the turnovers hurt, but I dont think it was because we played that poorly.
The next week it was business as usual, as Luke Wheeler put on a scoring clinic, finding the endzone nearly every time he touched the ball in a 55-7 rout of South Stokes. Wheeler scored on runs of 50, 22 and 50 to finish the night with 122 yards on those three carries for three scores. Wheeler also caught a 42-yard touchdown from Hinson and returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown.
The big win set the stage for undoubtedly the most talked about and attended regular season game of the Northwest football season, the matchup of 10-0 East Surry and 10-0 Mount Airy for the conference title.
With the stands full on senior night, the Cardinals were able to limit the Mount Airy ground attack to just more than 100 yards, its lowest output of the season.
But while the running game was sputtering, the Bears passing game was kicking into high gear.
Justin Collier caught six passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears won their 26th straight game and claimed the Northwest 1-A/2-A title.
The Bears dealt a deadly blow at the close of the first half, up 10-0.
The Cardinals had a chance to cut into the lead off a Bear fumble, but gave Mount Airy the ball back following a botched double-reverse.
With time running down, Holder opted for some trickery.
Wheeler lined up behind center with Hinson split wide left, a formation the Bears had run out of all season long.
This time however, Wheeler faked the run and dropped back to hit a wide open Collier for a back-breaking touchdown and a 17-0 halftime lead.
We got a turnover and did not cash in on it, Diamont said afterwards. That could have been a real boost if we would have put some points on the board.
After securing the teams third straight conference title in quite possibly the best fashion (a win over East Surry) Holder said the title should be credited to the effort of players who hadnt seen much playing time a season ago.
Its great, he said of the title. You know what, I never would have thought we would be standing here. Our kids have been so resilient. We lost 17 starters out of 22 from last year, but the five we got back are pretty good. There have been some kids who have stepped up, Brooks Maybery, (Jordan) Schwartz and (Demtrius) Rucker, cant say enough about them. Cant name them all, but they have stepped up and become big time players for us and thats really what has put us here.
Heading into the playoffs, the Bears were the No.1 seed in the Western 1A bracket and looked to make a swift run to their second consecutive title game.
Mount Airys first three playoff games offered little opposition, as the Bears buried Rosewood, West Columbus and Princeton by a combined score of 142-34.
Entering into the Western region final against Robbinsville, the Bears knew they would be in for a test.
Weve talked all year about our goals and as weve accomplished a goal, weve set forth others, Holder said. The kids know whats at stake because theyve experienced it before. They know every game is do or die and its important… I told them that everybody plays a game that is going to define them and when you are playing you dont know when that time is going to be, so you have to be prepared every night for that moment to happen. They understand the importance and I dont think its very difficult to get any team ready to play at this point.
The Mount Airy-Robbinsville matchup was arguably the best game with the most at stake the area has seen in quite a while.
Robbinsville showed they came to play as the Black Knights jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two first quarter touchdowns by senior running back Kurt Odom.
Odom, who was by far the toughest player on the opposing sideline, finished with 100 yards on 25 carries for two scores and two catches for 80 yards and one touchdown.
To the dismay of a large Mount Airy crowd, the Bears didnt get on the scoreboard until nine minutes left in the second quarter on a 21-yard Tyler Hull field goal after Robbinsville held Mount Airy on four plays at the goal line.
Temoney picked up a touchdown six minutes later on a four-yard run and Hull booted a huge 38-yard field goal just two seconds before the half to pull the score to 14-13 Robbinsville heading into the locker room.
The Bears were unable to find the endzone through the third quarter and trailed 26-13 with just under 10 minutes left in the game.
Mount Airys defense held just enough to give the ball back to the offense, which set the stage for two touchdown passes to from Ben Hinson to Justin Collier in the final five minutes of the game.
The final play was the play of the game and the season to that point for Mount Airy, as Collier hauled in a pass on fourth and-17 with 1:15 remaining to tie the score at 26.
Holder gave all the credit to his wideout and quarterback for the spectacular play.
Hes (Collier) a super athlete and hed been cramping all night long and its amazing what he did, Holder said. We just put it all on Justins shoulders. We knew theyd bracket him and they did bracket him, but he just made a great play. It wasnt a great call, it was just a great catch.
Mount Airy took its licks in the win but hunkered down for a matchup with the Wallace-Rose Hill Bulldogs.
Another game for the memory bank, the Bears and Bulldogs battled to a 30-30 tie at the end of regulation.
After Mount Airy scored on their first overtime possession, Wallace-Rose Hill found the end zone on fourth down from the one yard line.
Instead of electing to tie the game with an extra point, Rose Hill coach Joey Price, a dead ringer for Mount Airy offensive line coach Donald Price, went for an all-or-nothing two-point conversion.
The Bulldogs Omar Carr just barely broke the plain off a big push from Rose Hills offensive line, dashing Mount Airys repeat hopes in the process.
Mount Airy coach Kelly Holder gave credit to his opposition for the move.
Ill be honest with you, although Im going to contradict myself, I think it was a great call by him, but when he did make it I was pretty confident we were going to win, Holder said. I think both teams were having a little trouble stopping each other but I was pretty confident in ourselves that we could stop them, but we just couldnt quite do it.
After such a tough loss and an emotional season, Mount Airy captain Luke Wheeler expressed no regrets at taking the field with the 2009 Granite Bears.
The biggest thing I realized afterwards is Ive got to leave this team behind, Ive got to leave my brothers behind, Wheeler said. We came so close this year and this is probably the closest team Ive been a part of and its been a pleasure being their captain and being their leader and being their brother. So that was the biggest thing for me.
We werent angry with ourselves, Senior captain Brooks Mayberry said. We gave it our all and left it all on the field.