NEWLAND — It was a full sail kind of evening for the Avery Vikings football team last Friday, Sept. 16, as the Big Red (1-4, 1-0 WHC) celebrated Homecoming with its best performance of the 2022 regular season, a 51-13 demolition of the Rosman Tigers.
The competition significantly stiffens this week, however, as Avery takes the bus ride to Valdese and Draughn High School to face the Wildcats (4-1, 1-0 WHC) for the Wildcats’ Homecoming contest. Draughn is coming off its own impressive performance a week ago, as it earned a decisive 55-12 victory in Swannanoa in its Western Highlands Conference opener at Owen.
Draughn defeated Avery 42-22 in Newland a season ago, and has won three of the four games in the series all-time, with the lone Vikings victory coming in a 32-28 win in 2018 prior to Draughn’s entry into the Western Highlands Conference.
Scouting the Wildcats
Draughn is coached by Chris Powell, and the Wildcats are coming off a 6-6 season in 2021 that saw the team reach the second round of the state 1A playoffs for just the second time in school history. A young group of Wildcats have matured are among the most experienced teams in the Western Highlands Conference, as 18 overall starters returned for the 2022 season, with the addition of a pair of starters whose seasons where cut short in 2021 due to season-ending injuries.
Triggering the Draughn offense is quarterback Eli Tillery. Tillery is a dual threat in the Wildcats’ spread offense, with the quickness to move out of the pocket and run the football, as well as the accuracy to find receivers downfield for chunk yardage plays. Tillery is joined in the backfield by junior running back Nigel Dula. Named Burke County’s player of the year last season, Dula missed the early portion of the season due to offseason surgery, but has returned to provide Coach Powell with another offensive weapon to complement his arsenal. Dula’s teammate Justice Cunningham (530 rushing yards in 2022) has helped to share the ball-carrying load in his absence, registering three 100-yard rushing performances this season.
When the Wildcats take to the air, prime target on the receiving end of the football include wide receivers Zach Pinkerton and six-foot, three-inch, 200-pound wideout Eli Pritchard. Also catching passes for the Wildcats are Dula, Connor Pinkerton, Sterling Radabaugh and Tywan Nemorin.
In the trenches, leading the Draughn lines is Luke Rector, while teammates Hampton Blackwell, Josh Elkins, Donnell Wilkins, Malachi Silver, Thomas Lambert and Kelton Mitchell put pressure on opposing backfields.
Will Price serves as special teams return threat for the Wildcats, as he returned two kicks for more than 30 yards in last week’s win at Owen. Draughn prefers two-point conversion attempts over extra point kicks, with Rudy Mendoza handling kicking duties for the Wildcats.
The low down
Outside of the Mitchell Mountaineers, many preseason pundits selected Draughn as the second-best club in the Western Highlands Conference. With the exception of a one-point overtime loss to East Burke, the Wildcats would be a perfect 5-0 on the season. Other than the same contest with East Burke, Draughn has surrendered no more than 16 points per contest, while the team has averaged 52 points per game in its four victories.
Draughn is potent on offense with three legitimate running threats in its backfield in Tillery, Cunningham and a strengthening Dula, who returned for his first action two weeks ago against Highland Tech. If Avery stacks the box defensively, however, Tillery is more than capable of throwing downfield, as evidenced by last week’s 16-for-21 passing performance for 248 yards with five touchdowns.
Offensively, Avery must be successful in multiple areas to keep this week’s game within striking distance for what on paper would be considered an upset. The Big Red must take care of the football on offense and not turn the football over while also attempting to control possession and limit opportunities for Draughn’s offense to be on the field. Avery must also limit Draughn’s big-play potential that it has demonstrated in multiple games this season.
Vikings quarterback Will Stanford is at his most dangerous when he has enough time to scan the field and read through his progressions which, with the exception of last week’s win has been inconsistently accomplished. If the Viking offensive line can give Stanford a clean pocket to pass from, and if the Vikings can somehow find a way to generate momentum running the football to keep Draughn on its heels, Friday’s game has potential for a close contest.
Defensively, the Hughes brothers (Landon and Lukas) and teammate Asher Hartzog have been collecting the lion’s share of tackles. If the defense can impose its will against the Wildcats and force a couple of turnovers, Avery’s opportunity for success and a road win will only improve.
By the numbers
3 — successful fourth-down conversion in three attempts by the Avery offense last week
5 — turnovers forced by the Avery defense in its Homecoming win over Rosman
8 — tackles by lineman Grayson Hoilman to lead the Avery defense in last week’s win against Rosman
85 — receiving yards by Vikings receiver and 2022 ACHS Homecoming King Latrell Baker, along with a touchdown
134 — rushing yards by Vikings quarterback Will Stanford, with a pair of TD carries in last week’s 51-13 win against the Tigers
171 — combined rushing yards by Draughn RBs Cunningham and Dula in the 55-12 Wildcat win at Owen last week
189 — yards in total offense given up to Owen by the Draughn defense in last week’s conference road win
237 — rushing yards by the Vikings in its win over Rosman last week
Read next week’s edition of The AJT for a recap of this week’s matchup at Draughn. The Vikings will have its open date on Friday, Sept. 30, before returning to the field to play at Mountain Heritage on Friday, Oct. 7.
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