DOBSON — You could call it a case of mistaken identity.
Surry Central’s football team appeared to be on its way to a successful season last Sept. 18, when it did something the Golden Eagles hadn’t done in a generation. On that day, Central thrashed county rival Mount Airy 20-0, winning its second straight game after opening the season 0-3 against a difficult schedule.
At that point, you could have gotten good odds that the Eagles were on their way to their second winning season in a row and a third straight year of earning a berth in the 2A state playoffs.
It didn’t turn out that way, and a lot of people couldn’t understand what had happened.
The problem was that the Surry Central team that declawed the Granite Bears on that September night was never at full strength again all season.
“We had some injuries,” said head coach Monty Southern. “The game after the Mount Airy game, we lost one of our skill players, Martin Palacios, for the rest of the season. Then the game after that, we lost one of our starting inside linebackers, Chase Mosley, for the rest of the season. Between moving some guys around and moving up some JV kids to take their spots, we dropped off just a little bit.”
It took several weeks for the Eagles to rediscover a winning combination in the absence of two key players. In mid-October, they played rival North Surry close for three quarters, hammered South Stokes, and then played playoff-bound Forbush and conference champ West Stokes agonizingly close in the final two games of the regular season. Central actually led the Wildcats in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale before falling 27-23. The Golden Eagles had battled back to become a good team again — but it was too late to salvage the season.
“I thought Mount Airy and West Stokes at the end of the year were our two best games,” said Southern.
Fortunately, there are many reasons to believe that the Golden Eagles who take the field this Aug. 19 against East Surry will resemble the ones who battled the Bears and Wildcats, rather the version that floundered at midseason.
The coaching staff welcomes back 17 of the 22 starters who made up last year’s team, including both Palacios and Mosely (a senior lineman and linebacker). Surry Central will be loaded with experience and senior leadership, with 20 of the 36 players on the roster in their final season.
“Last year’s senior class was a smaller class, but this senior class is the biggest I’ve ever had,” said Southern. “A lot of these guys have been up since they were sophomores, and a couple have been up since they were freshmen. It’s the most experience we’ve had in a long time.”
Essentially, all the Eagles will need to do is replace a few linemen, and they will return, at full strength, with every other key performer on last year’s team, only now a year older. And they believe this is their year to make some noise in the Western Piedmont Athletic Conference.
“We’ve set some goals,” said Southern. “They want to compete for a conference championship. We’ve played every team in our conference really tough, but we’ve yet to beat West Stokes or Carver. We’d like to get over the hump and compete for a championship this season. They definitely want to make the playoffs, and they want to advance in the playoffs.”
A good start on that quest would be a healthy season from Palacios, a 5’9”, 190-pound junior who played both offensive and defensive back for Central last fall. Before going down with an injury in week five against Salisbury, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry, 13 per pass reception, and was playing outstanding ball on the defensive side as well.
“He is a major impact player for us on both sides of the ball,” said Southern. “He was a big threat on offense and defense, and he has been a starting corner for two years. When we lost him, we lost a good cover guy.”
Senior quarterback Chandler Johnson, who made it through the entire season and put up solid numbers in spite of the injuries around him, will be the first two-year starter under center for the Golden Eagles in several years.
“It’s the first time in about nine years that I’ve had a returning starting quarterback,” Southern said. “We’re looking forward to that.”
Joining Johnson and Palacios in the Surry Central backfield is senior running back Eric Ramirez, who was all-conference a year ago. Another all-conference performer up front will be lineman David Peña, who plays on both sides of the ball and earned all-WPAC honors as a defensive lineman last fall. Peña is one of two all-state Golden Eagle wrestlers who will be anchors on the offensive and defensive lines. Peña, the third-place winner at 285 pounds last winter, is joined up front by fellow senior Kaleb Dunn, who placed fifth overall at 195. Although both are known more for their prowess on the mat, both are also fine football players.
In a sense, many of the Eagles’ seniors will be looking for redemption after last year’s disappointment. Two years ago, the coaching staff had brought several of them up to varsity and watched them play key roles in a seven-win campaign that ended in a state playoff berth.
“We’re looking for big things out of a lot of guys. A lot these seniors are kids we pulled up as sophomores, and they weren’t just up watching, they were playing in the games,” Southern said. “Martin (Palacios), Peña and Dunn have all been up since they were freshmen. To be a 2A school without a lot of football tradition, we feel like defensively we’ve got as much depth as we’ve had in a long time.
“We were a little up and down last year. We never played a good game on the road. We talked about that in the offseason, being more mature and handling playing on the road better. Other than the East Wilkes game, we were very strong at home, but we never did play anywhere near our potential on the road. Whenever we get on that bus, our mentality has to be the same as if we were getting ready for a home game.”
Southern is confident that the Eagles can recapture the promise of 2014 and last year’s win over Mount Airy, if they can just stay focused on the road and stay healthy.
“I think our conference will be really good again, but we can compete with everyone,” he said. “Hopefully we can stay injury free. We have a great group of kids and I enjoy coaching them.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.