This time last season the shoe was on the other foot for coach Kelly Holder and the Mount Airy Granite Bears.
Coming off a 1A state championship with a solid core of returning upperclassmen and a chip on their shoulder, Mount Airy was favored in its season opener against a traditionally tough Starmount team.
And as it often goes, the Bears proved the prognosticators right with an emphatic 41-28 win on their way to a second consecutive title game appearance.
But that was then and this is now.
While the Rams aren’t defending a championship this season, they are the more experienced and, on paper, talented, group as both teams gear up for tonight’s season opener in Boonville.
Starmount boasts two of the area’s top players in senior quarterback/safety Jake Barr and senior runningback/linebacker M.J. Bryant. Both are strong, fast and seasoned, and can only draw comparisons to the same type talent Mount Airy has enjoyed during the past several seasons.
Barr is the reigning Mountain Valley 1A/2A offensive player of the year and is a dual threat under center, finishing 2009 with 703 yards rushing and 717 yards passing.
Bryant, listed at 205 pounds, is a bruising runner on offense and was the 2009 MVC 1A/2A defensive player of the year.
To go along with those two threats, the Rams return speedy senior Israel Murphy, who led the team with 1,082 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.
“They are seniors, they are probably college prospects, and any time you have guys that you know are at that skill level, they always cause you concern,” defensive coordinator Darren Taylor said. “It’s easy to key on one player, but when it’s the quarterback and a slot and a tailback, they can do a lot of things out of it. They are experienced in the backfield and you just can’t beat that experience. It’s going to be a war.”
For Mount Airy, things are a little different.
The Bears have back a core of returning lettermen, but will have to lean on inexperienced players early in the season.
Senior quarterback Ben Hinson is the only returning skill starter on offense, while the defensive side of the ball may be more of a question mark with the loss of the majority of last season’s regulars.
Despite the difference in veteran leadership and returning fire power, Holder said his team will enter tonight’s matchup like every one before it — with a good mind to win.
“I’m going to be honest with you, our kids expect to win but we are going to have to do some things to make that happen,” he said. “We’ve got to stop their running game. We need to slow them down, because I think their offense is potent, I really do.”
Undoubtedly, a major question mark for the Bears is at running back.
Gone are all-world talents like Andy Temoney and Luke Wheeler, which leaves inexperienced holdovers remaining to carry the load.
Holder said senior Demetrius Rucker will take the first snaps behind Hinson, with Terry Adams, Zaqwan Dobson and Ty Simmons also in the mix to split time.
Those backs and the Bears relatively veteran offensive line will have to deal with Starmount’s stingy defense, which should only be better from a season ago.
“They are very sound on defense and they always have been,” Holder said. “Each kid knows how to play his position pretty well. That’s what you get when you run a defense for so long, kids get very accustomed to it. They know exactly where they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to do it. They are very well schooled.”
Holder said the key to Mount Airy breaking through the Starmount defense is to be patient and have solid and more importantly, long, series which can wear down its opponent.
“We aren’t going to score in three plays,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we put some drives down and to do that you’ve go to play mistake free.”
With a 34-game regular-season win streak on the line, Holder said the Bears need players who have yet to have their time in the spotlight to step up quickly, with tonight’s matchup an extremely tough barometer for the upcoming season.
“It’s really too good of one to be honest,” he said. “We just have a lot of unproven kids. They’ve been told that sooner or later their moment is going to come and they better be ready for it because they don’t want to blow it. Tomorrow night we are going to have to have some guys make plays that in the past haven’t had to make them.”
Contact Thomas Smith at email@example.com or 719-1920.