The 2019 football season has featured plenty of big wins for the Owen Warhorses, but none of them were bigger than the one they celebrated on Larry Wagner Field In Oakboro on Nov. 15.
Players and coaches exchanged handshakes, hugs and high-fives on the field at West Stanly High School, where the Warhorses opened the NCHSAA 2A State Playoffs with 27-7 victory over the Colts, advancing to the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2014.
The win was the third straight for Owen, and the first career playoff victory for head coach Nathan Padgett, who was hired in 2015.
“It does feel very good,” Padgett said following the game in which his number 9 seeded Warhorses never trailed the number 8 Colts. “But it feels really good to see the kids get the win. They’ve worked so hard to get to this point.”
Owen qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the Padgett era in 2018, finishing the regular season 4-6 before losing to Reidsville, 49-13 in the first round.
The team’s expectations in 2019 were bolstered by a roster that included senior offensive and defensive linemen Saevion Gibbs, Jaylin Davidson and C.J. Gray. That unit is rounded off by juniors Eli Brasher, who leads the Warhorses with 44 pancake blocks through 11 games, and C.J.’s younger brother Sam Gray.
On the offensive side of the ball, the line has provided protection for junior quarterback Caleb Scott, who has completed 63 passes on 129 attempts for 1,150 yards while connecting for 15 touchdown passes only 3 interceptions in his first season as the Warhorse starter.
Defensively, Gibbs, Davidson, Brasher and the Gray brothers have been a consistent disruption in the backfield of opponents, where they have combined for 59 tackles for losses, 41 quarterback hurries and 8 sacks.
The unit combined for 26 tackles, 9 tackles for losses and a C.J. Gray sack against West Stanly, the Rocky River Conference team that entered the opening round of the playoffs with an 8-2 record. The Colts were without injured junior rushing leader Jordan Poole, who ran for 1,534 yards and 21 touchdowns in eight games this season.
Scott got the Owen offense on the board early, connecting with senior receiver Fred Graves for a 5-yard touchdown pass after the Warhorses recovered a Colts fumble of the opening kickoff. Graves, who has pulled in 6 touchdown receptions in his last three games, would establish a 14-0 Owen lead minutes later on a 34-yard play-action pass from the quarterback. They would take that 14-0 advantage into the locker room at the half.
“Fred has really turned it on the past few weeks,” Padgett said, following the game. “He is leading by example and he’s come such a long way for us. I’m so proud of that young man because he’s done so much for us, and he’s a leader. He’s one of our team captains and he’s playing some great football at the right time. He’s hungry; they’re all hungry.”
Junior running back Dequan Boyce, who transferred from McDowell at the beginning of the school year, continued to emerge as an offensive weapon for the Warhorses as he set the team up with a 20-yard run up the middle to get the Owen offense past midfield in the beginning of the third quarter. Boyce picked up his fourth 100-yard performance of the year, carrying the ball 13 times for 111 yards and a touchdown.
He leads the team in rushing through 11 games with 679 yards, averaging 10.6 yards per carry. His 7 rushing touchdowns ties him with Scott for a team high.
The Warhorses would increase their lead to 21-0, as Scott found Shavoy Harding in the end zone with a 29-yard pass. The junior, who finished the game with 59 total yards, has scored 7 touchdowns for the Warhorses this season.
Owen would lose Gibbs in the third quarter after officials disqualified him from the contest when he hit the West Stanly quarterback as Sam Gray was pulling him to the turf. The senior lineman pleaded that he led with his shoulder, to no avail. The call to disqualify Gibbs, as opposed to an ejection, makes him eligible to participate in the second round.
The Warhorses did not relent, despite the loss of Gibbs. Sam Gray recovered a Colts fumble and Owen would go on to take a 27-0 lead before West Stanly scored late in the game.
Padgett’s team has been dominant in its last three games, outscoring opponents 143 - 49. Scott has thrown for 438 yards with 18 completions on 30 attempts and 10 touchdowns in that stretch. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Oct. 25. He’s run for 199 yards on 26 carries over during that time, scoring 3 rushing touchdowns.
“As this season has gone on, he’s gotten more comfortable as a first-year starter at quarterback,” Padgett said of Scott after the playoff game. “You can see the confidence he’s gaining each week, both throwing and running the football. He’s starting to excel and put up some big numbers for us.”
The Warhorses will face Western Highlands Conference champions, and number 1 seed, Mountain Heritage in Burnsville at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 22 in the second round of the playoffs. The teams last met on Oct. 25, when Owen led the Cougars 15-14 with 3:30 seconds left in the game before a dramatic kickoff recovery by Mountain Heritage sealed their 22-15 victory.
The loss was devastating for the Warhorses, who had knocked off previously unbeaten Polk the prior week.
“We’ll keep our routine the same,” Padgett said of preparing for the Mountain Heritage rematch. “We don’t want to change anything, we’ll keep doing what we’ve done all year.”