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NEWLAND — The 2019 edition of the Avery Vikings enters the regular season off a successful summer campaign, impressing in 7-on-7 and in scrimmage action, as well as showing off the fruits of the team’s labor in the weight room during the offseason.

The Vikings captured only two victories in the 2018 season under first-year AHS head coach Mac Bryan, but the team returns the nucleus of a team that has steadily grown into a single-minded unit on and off the field.

It is that core of young players that has built a season of action and a full offseason in Bryan’s system under its collective belt that takes the field with the goal of snapping a postseason drought that has seen the Vikings fail to qualify for the playoffs each of the past two seasons and fail to win a playoff game since 2010.

Avery welcomes Ashe County to “The Mountain” and the friendly confines of MacDonald Stadium this Friday, Aug. 23, seeking to get the season off to a winning start. The teams have split their past two meetings after suspending its series following the 2006 season. The Vikings lost last season’s matchup in Jefferson 50-7, but the Big Red is 8-3 overall versus Ashe County in the overall series since 1998, Avery’s first matchup with the Huskies after the consolidation of Ashe high schools into a single county school.

Scouting the Huskies

The Ashe County Huskies are coached by Brian Hampton, and the club is coming off one of its most successful seasons in school history, finishing a perfect mark in Mountain Valley 1A/2A Athletic Conference play and 10-3 overall, including a win in last year’s state 2A playoffs.

Ashe returns seven starters and 12 lettermen overall from last season’s ballclub, but the team lost 17 seniors, including starting quarterback Luke Hudler, receiver Branson Shepherd, top cornerback Kai Christoferson and linebacker Noah Vannoy. All four starters on the defensive line and all but one starting offensive linemen went out the door with them, leaving gaps on both sides of the ball. Hampton said players who are now stepping up have played well in practice and scrimmages, but their lack of game experience will have to be remedied sooner rather than later.

“The great thing is that we’ve got four defensive leaders coming back with Ryan (Blevins) and Gabe (Bare) in the middle and Drake (Elliott) and Keenan (Witherspoon) on the outside, so we’ve got a great nucleus there,” Hampton said in an interview with The AJT’s sister newspaper, The Ashe Post & Times. “We have to fit some pieces in the back end and the front, but I think what we’re doing defensively will get more athleticism on the field.”

To help remedy the lack of experience on the line, Hampton said the team is looking to blitz more and take advantage of Elliott’s speed and strength as he transitions to a more pass-rushing role.

Much of the offense will revolve around junior Austin Poe, who led all 2A receivers in yards, and junior running back Timothy Peterson, who finished fourth in the classification in rushing. Hampton said Peterson, who dealt with shoulder issues at the end of the 2018 season, is not being hampered by the issues which required surgery in the off-season.

Hampton noted that the threat from Poe should help keep defenses on their heels, opening it up for Peterson to find holes. Both players’ experience and talent will make things easier for junior quarterback Dawson Cox, who has taken over the starting role after Luke Hudler’s departure.

Much as is the case with smaller schools like Ashe and Avery, health and depth are primary concerns.

“The numbers are way down, about 48 total, only 21 varsity players,” Hampton said. “The quality is there, it’s the quantity that we’re lacking. I really like what we’ve got, some very good players who are working very hard, we just don’t have a lot of them.”

The low down

Despite Avery’s propensity to throw the football around the yard, the key to the Vikings’ success in 2019 will come much closer to the line of scrimmage. If the weight training and strength increases from the weight room translate onto the football field, Avery will begin its 2019 campaign on a high note and with momentum.

Neither the Vikings nor the Huskies can afford to suffer any significant injuries at any point during the season, especially in their respective Week One contests against one another.

Avery junior quarterback Troy Hoilman, already one of the more talented throwers of the football last season as a rookie in Big Red Country, has worked tirelessly during the offseason to better himself physically and know the playbook inside-out, which should translate into making good decisions on the field to put the team in position for success.

A number of Avery players have stood out besides Hoilman, a grouping that includes the big men on the offensive and defensive lines, wide receivers Ty Smith, Jesse Jones and Jonas Bowman, and returning running back Lucas Andrews.

The lingering question that remains to be seen for the Vikings as the season curtain rises, however, is the defensive unit. Although the Vikings offense and special teams put the defense in formidable positions at times during last season, the defense surrendered too many points and big plays to stay competitive in many games. If the defensive line can plug holes and put pressure on the passing game of the opposing defense, beginning especially this week with the Huskies and their quarterback Cox, the Vikings will play its way back into the postseason picture.

This week’s season-opening home game for the Vikings has been designated as “Avery County Schools Appreciation Night,” and is the first of several special recognitions planned throughout the Avery home football schedule in 2019.

By the numbers:

13 — wins for Ashe in its previous two seasons before breaking out for a 10-win campaign in 2018

17 — touchdown passes thrown by Avery QB Troy Hoilman in the 2018 season

34 — unanswered points scored by Ashe after Avery drew within 16-7 at the 1:09 mark of the opening quarter in last season’s contest

43 — total touchdowns from Ashe teammates Austin Poe and Timothy Peterson in the 2018 season

65 — tackles by Ashe’s Ryan Blevins to lead the team in 2018

71 — yards in total offense gained by Avery in last season’s 50-7 defeat at Ashe.

218 — total points scored by the Vikings offense in 2018, an average of 19.8 points per game.

Read next week’s edition of The AJT for a full recap of this week’s season opener with Ashe, as well as a recap of next week’s home contest against the West Wilkes Blackhawks.

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