BOONVILLE — The 2018 high school football season wasn’t even four hours old, and Mount Airy and Starmount may have already played the area’s Game of the Year.
The second-ranked Granite Bears came in as heavy favorites and led by 18 points in the third quarter of Friday’s season opener for both teams, but had to hang on for dear life in the final minutes to escape with a 45-38 victory over a determined group of Rams.
Mount Airy, which was rated as a 30-point favorite by NCPreps, nearly lost the lead altogether when Starmount’s Ethan Barnes ran six yards for a touchdown with 5:25 remaining. The Rams attempted an extra point to tie the game, which the Bears blocked to maintain a slim 38-37 edge at that point.
The visitors then drove 63 yards on a drive that ate up nearly four minutes of the clock before Johnathon Smith scored with 1:33 to play. Mount Airy, now up by seven, tried to clinch the game with a two-point conversion, but Starmount’s Jonah Pendergrass blew up the play and stuffed Smith at the line of scrimmage.
The Rams began their final series at their own 19-yard line, and marched all the way to the Mount Airy 38 with time running out. A final pass toward the end zone was broken up, and the Bears escaped with the win in what was the head coaching debut for the new leaders of both teams — the visitors’ J.K. Adkins and Starmount’s Sandy Grinton.
Mount Airy led 32-14 after taking the second-half kickoff and driving 76 yards for a score. Donavon Greene hauled in a 57-yard touchdown pass from Holden Poindexter on a third-and-long play to give his team its biggest lead of the night. However, the team in blue and orange outplayed the defending 1AA East Regional champions for the rest of the evening.
Starmount answered Greene’s bomb with one of its own. On the Rams’ very first play from scrimmage, Barnes caught a swing pass from quarterback Trey Dezern for what appeared to be a short gain, but then got behind the coverage and sprinted all the way to paydirt. Just fifteen seconds after the Bears had gone up three scores, Starmount was back in it at 32-20.
The Rams got even closer with 4:34 left in the third quarter. The Starmount defense had forced Mount Airy to punt from its own 40, and a miscommunication on the play led to the Bears’ long-snapper snapping the ball before any of his teammates were ready. The ball sailed deep into the visitors’ side of the field before most of their players even realized the ball was free and up for grabs. Starmount’s Nik Pardue won the race to the ball, picked it up at the 8 and carried it into the end zone. The determined Rams now trailed just 32-26.
Mount Airy answered by going 59 yards for a score on a drive that took less than three and a half minutes. Big catches by Greene and Cole Shelton put the Bears in the red zone, and then Dalton Nance hauled in a 31-yard touchdown pass to make it 39-26 with 73 seconds remaining in the third.
Starmount refused to back down. Back came the Rams on a night when both teams were wearing down in the muggy night. The home team used old-fashioned smashmouth football to batter its way 80 yards the other way and score with 10:13 left in the contest on a seven-yard run by J. Max Swaim. The point-after was no good, but Starmount was within a touchdown.
Swaim sacked Poindexter on the first play of the Bears’ next series, and Mount Airy went three-and-out. Hard running by Barnes mixed in with a screen pass from Dezern to Swaim allowed Starmount to move the ball 46 yards in nine plays before Barnes scored what appeared to be the game-tying score. But a surge by the Bears’ kick-block team, led by Poindexter, turned away Dawson Smith’s extra-point try.
The first half of the contest was almost as wild as the first. Mount Airy scored on its first series, but not without resorting to some trickery. Poindexter and Greene executed a double-pass play in which the quarterback lateraled to Greene, who lateraled it back, and then Poindexter threw long to Cole Shelton, who hauled in the pass at the Starmount 12 and turned it into a 33-yard TD pass on fourth-and-7.
Starmount took the lead in the second quarter after the Bears botched their first punt of the night. Punter Armando Estrada couldn’t handle a bad snap and was corralled by the Rams at the Mount Airy 30. From there, Starmount drove for a score, with Drake Funderburk throwing a halfback-option pass to Eric Wiles for a score with 9:37 left in the first half.
Mount Airy scored the next three times it had the ball, in rapid succession, and appeared to be taking control of the game. Jaedon Hill capped off the next series with a 10-yard reception from Poindexter for a score at the 7:37 mark, and then Mount Airy drove 61 yards for another score after a Starmount three-and-out. Smith ran 31 yards for a score at 5:07, and the lead was 19-7 for the visitors.
Shelton intercepted a pass on Starmount’s next series, and Hill immediately ran 46 yards for a score with 3:24 left in the first half to make it 25-7.
However, the Rams refused to fold, and they answered that drive with an 80-yard march of their own, scoring on a quarterback sneak with 1:57 left before the break to make it 25-14 at the half.
Starmount will remain at home next week for a clash with East Surry, while the Bears will stay on the road for a battle with West Stokes.
Reach John Cate via Twitter at @johncate73.