Mount Airy is used to leading the pack in Northwest 1A Conference football.
The Granite Bears won or shared the conference championship in seven of the past 11 seasons, including six years where they didn’t lose a single league game. During that time, the program has averaged 11 wins per season, advanced to the 1A state playoffs every year, and won two West Regional titles and a state championship.
But for the past two seasons, Mount Airy has played second fiddle to former Bear head coach David Diamont and his East Surry program. The Cardinals have ruled the roost ever since they upset Mount Airy in the second round of the playoffs back in 2013, defeating the Bears in each of the last two regular-season finales with the league title on the line.
If preseason prognosticators are correct, Coach Kelly Holder’s team will finally reclaim its perch this fall. Mount Airy is favored to elbow its way past East Surry and Walkertown to return to the Northwest throne room. Actually, at least some of the Bears have even bigger aspirations — outside the entrance to Wallace Shelton Stadium, a large rock has been painted in Mount Airy blue and white with the hashtag #ringchasin, with a photo of a ring alongside the message.
“Every year, our goal is to win the first game, then win the conference championship, and then progress as far as we can. If you’re not playing for the conference championship every year, then something’s wrong,” said Holder. “That should be the goal of every team, and we’ve been fortunate to have the players and the coaches that have gotten us there several times. We haven’t gotten it the last two years, so it’s something we’ve got our eyes set on for sure.”
The Granite Bears return 14 players with starting experience last year, seven on each side of the ball, in their efforts to claim the Northwest title for the first time since 2013. Mount Airy’s 2016 team is relatively small on numbers, but the Bears’ returning contingent contains some formidable talent.
“We don’t necessarily have a lot of bodies, but the players we do have, we are very confident in,” Holder said. “We like the demeanor of our team, and we like our attitude, and that’s a lot of the battle. We got 29 (players) right now, but we’ve had a couple of injuries to our outside linebackers, and not only are they good players, they are great special teams players. When you don’t have a lot of people, injuries hurt in 1A football.”
The coaching staff did get some good news later in the week. One of the two injured players, senior Shaun Evans, was not hurt as badly as originally thought. He was cleared to return to practice a few days after going down in an Aug. 4 scrimmage. The other of the two, junior Chance Sizemore, will probably not be available this season.
On the offensive side of the ball, much of the firepower that allowed Mount Airy to generate 27.5 points per game during 2015 is back in the fold. The Bears’ attack begins with senior quarterback Jackson Smith (6’5”, 226), who took over the starting role late last season and led the team in its playoff run. His favorite targets will include junior Ian Holder, who began last season as the quarterback, but moved to a slot receiver position in order to give the team another playmaker in the passing game; split end Donovan Green, a sophomore, and senior tight end Corbin Welch.
In the running game, senior Malik Frost (5’10”, 170) is back after a season in which he rose from fifth on the depth chart to become the starter for the last seven games of the 2015 season. After he became a starter, Frost ran for well over 100 yards in every game and ended up with 1,109 yards on 143 carries, a 7.8 average, and 13 touchdowns.
“Malik started out as our number five, but moved up because of injuries,” said Holder. “Once he took the spot, he never let it go.”
His 2016 rushing total could end up being a very large number, because Mount Airy should be solid up front. Paving the way for Frost and protecting Smith’s backside are three outstanding returnees, led by offensive and defensive tackle (and state track and field champion) Gabriel King (6’1”, 240, sr.), an all-conference selection last year. Joining King in the trenches are center Cody Clawson (6’1”, 267, jr.) and left guard JJ Wheeler (6’2”, 216, sr.).
Of course, no mention of the Granite Bears’ offensive line is complete without a mention of who isn’t there. The school’s athletic director, Donald Price, died on June 17 at age 52 after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. Price had also served as the offensive line coach at the school for more than two decades.
“You can’t replace him. You just can’t. You just have to go on and bite the bullet,” said Holder. “You’re talking about missing someone who has not only been our offensive line coach for 20-plus years, you’re talking about a guy who gave absolutely everything he had to this program and to the school. You can spread out the work he did between three or four other people, but you can’t replace his friendship and you can’t replace the dynamic he bought to the program. He would always tell me when things had to be done, ‘I got it, Coach. You just worry about the X’s and O’s.’”
The team will be planning a special tribute to Price during the season, with details to be announced later.
“I’m sure (Coach Price) will be a vital part of the team whether he’s here or not,” said Holder.
Coach Holder leaves the defensive deployment in the capable hands of assistant Darron Taylor, whose unit allowed just 17.3 points per game a year ago and also has some impressive talent on hand.
The leader of the Bears’ stop squad is a familiar name. King, the latest in a family line of Mount Airy sports standouts, is back for his fourth season as a starter on the defensive line.
“Gabe King is going to be one of our team leaders,” said Taylor. “He’s been a three-year varsity starter on the line, and is a really good leader and football player.”
Despite being subjected to frequent double-teaming, King was second on the team last year with 87 tackles. He led the Bears with 12 tackles for losses, six sacks, 14 hurries, and also forced a fumble.
Joining King on the line as a returning starter are junior Ryan Edwards (6’3”, 190, jr.), and Wheeler, with juniors Patrick Blevins (6’0”, 226), Tucker Corbin (6’0”, 210), and Zack Smith (6’3”, 248) also in the rotation.
“The defensive line should be one of our strengths this season,” said Taylor. “We have a lot of guys who can give us minutes on the defensive line and be productive.”
Linebacker Clayton Cogdill (6’1”, 204, jr.) is entering his third season as a starter for Mount Airy. Joining him in the team’s linebacker rotation are Welch and Trey Simmons (5’11”, 187, jr.) and the previously mentioned Evans. Taylor can also call on Smith in a pinch; the team’s starting quarterback was one of the Bears’ starting linebackers a year ago, but will play less of a role on the defense this season due to his increased responsibility on the offensive side of the ball.
“His time will be limited this year,” said Taylor, “but we still expect him to contribute greatly on our defense and play a lot of minutes for us.”
The secondary contains more familiar names from the offensive side of the ball, and is tremendously talented. Ian Holder (6’0”, 165) is back in the fold as a returning starter, with Frost alongside him. Green entered the mix last fall as a freshman and immediately made an impact, and he returns as well.
“They’re all great athletes,” said Taylor. “They give us a lot of options in the coverages we can run.”
The Bear defense had one of its strongest outings in the first round of the state playoffs, when the underdog Bears traveled 222 miles to play a Whiteville team loaded with athletes and pulled off a 10-6 upset victory. Taylor believes the defense can pull off similar feats this fall.
“We always set goals, our goal every year is of course to play the best every night,” he said. “We set goals for every team we play, as far as yards rushing and passing, but the main thing is just to be aggressive and get after people.”
Where reclaiming the NW1A title from East Surry is concerned, Coach Holder said that can wait until November.
“It doesn’t matter who (has the title now),” he said. “East Surry’s always going to be good. I’ll worry about them when we get to game 11. We don’t have them circled on our schedule or anything.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.