Vikings out-slug Starmount in battle of league unbeatens
by Matthew Gorry Sports Writer
BOONVILLE — North Wilkes swung first in Friday’s heavyweight slugfest between the Mountain Valley Conference unbeatens in Boonville.
But perennial powerhouse Starmount swung back as the teams traded blows throughout a physical, chippy contest.
In the end, the Vikings were left standing with a program-defining 13-10 victory to remain perfect in the school’s banner season.
“It’s the story of our season — turnovers and penalties. That was the story again tonight, we shot ourselves in the foot. It’s hard to beat a good team like that,” Head Coach Scott Johnson explained. “They played hard, but the penalties and turnovers really hurt us. We couldn’t get out of our own way.
“The kids fought, battled and gave us everything they had, even down to the fourth-down play. If we catch that pass, that was going to be a really big one. But give North Wilkes credit, they played hard. It was a really physical football game,” he added.
The Rams struck first on their second possession as Nick Gunnell split the uprights on a 21-yard field goal for an early 3-0 advantage.
After a turnover on downs at North’s 30-yard line, the Vikings got on the board after driving down the field behind the arm of L.J. Hendren. The senior capped the drive when he hit Justin Shepherd on a 33-yard pitch-and-catch to give North a 7-3 lead.
The Vikings threatened to extend their lead when they picked off a Zach Freed pass near midfield.
After driving to the 2-yard line just before the halftime horn, North missed a chip-shot field goal attempt that hit the uprights and careened out as Starmount hit the locker room only down 7-3.
The Vikings took control when Zach Wagoner picked up a Starmount fumble and rumbled 23 yards to push the lead out to 13-3 midway through the third quarter. Kyle Matthews blocked the extra point to keep the deficit at 10 points.
North pushed the Rams to the breaking point, picking off Freed once again and drove inside the 10-yard line. But on second down, Gunner Cass intercepted Hendren at the goal line on a bobbling catch to thwart the scoring chance.
Starmount responded and marched down the field as Aaron Skeens found paydirt from 19 yards out to cut the deficit to 13-10 with 10:47 remaining.
The Rams then forced back-to-back punts to get the ball one last time with two minutes left near midfield.
After North sacked Freed on 3rd-and-7, Starmount was faced with a game-deciding 4th-and-12.
“I told them that we were getting ready to complete this and it was going to be big,” Johnson said. “As I believe in them and they believe in themselves. He just overthrew it a little bit; maybe was a little excited. But you can’t put it down to one play.”
Freed floated a pass down the left sideline to Skeens, who snuck out of the backfield. But the pass landed just out of reach, hitting the turf, giving the Vikings their first-ever victory over Starmount.
With the win, North Wilkes improved to 7-1 on the season overall and 4-0 in the league, while Starmount fell to 5-3 and 3-1 on the year.
The Rams will look to get back on track Friday against winless East Wilkes at home, while the Vikings host conference undefeated Ashe County (5-3, 4-0).
“I told them that we need to refocus and get ready to go Monday and try to win the rest of them,” Johnson explained. “We want to put ourselves in the best position for the playoffs, and North is a 2A team. We just have to finish as well as we can here in the end and hope someone can knock them off.
“We need to finish out the year strong,” he added.
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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