Even when the recent string of games in the East Wilkes/Wilkes Centrals series have been lopsided, they’ve been pretty interesting.
And tonight’s matchup between the Cardinals and the Eagles in Ronda has the potential to be another entertaining game.
Both schools enter the regular-season finale after a productive three-game stretch of 2-1, with the Eagles taking wins over Alleghany and Starmount and the Cards beating the Trojans and Ashe County.
In the last six contests between the two county rivals the Eagles hold a 4-2 advantage, a mark that includes last season’s 55-26 Eagles’ win.
But even that game — lopsided as the final score was — kept the fans involved until the very end. Wilkes Central stormed out to a 41-0 advantage, but the Cardinals answered with 26-straight points of their own to make it a two-score game with just over seven minutes to play.
Wilkes Central would erase all doubt with two late touchdowns, but the strange game left an impression on both coaches.
“Hopefully, we learned that climbing out of a 41-point hole is pretty hard to do,” laughed Jonathan Wilmoth, the Cardinals’ head coach. “We know we have to play much better at the start. That’s a tough team to come back on.”
“I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to be in that situation again,” said Eagles’ Head Coach Ron Turner, referring to his squad’s early 41-point cushion. “East Wilkes is a much improved football team. We saw that in the way they beat Ashe County (43-42 on Oct. 25), after Ashe County handled us pretty well (a 55-29 Eagles’ loss on Oct. 18).
“But hopefully a game like that teaches the kids that you can’t let up, no matter what the score. A team like East can score quickly on you if you let up.”
The Eagles come into the Mountain Valley Athletic Conference finale for both schools with a record of 6-4 overall and a league mark of 4-2, good enough for third place. A potent running game has been Central’s calling card in 2019 and last week’s 21-13 win over the Rams was a template for how Turner’s team finds success.
JoRaye Morrison, Central’s bowling ball back, ran roughshod over the Rams for 253 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Josh Pack added 85 yards on the ground and another score. Morrison, a junior, is 103 yards shy of 2,000 for the season.
“They are very effective running the football,” said Wilmoth. “It’s a challenge. The key to stopping powerful backs is to get a lot of hats to the football. We also want to try and make them run where they don’t want to go. But all of that is much easier said than done.”
East Wilkes is 3-3 in the MVAC and 4-6 on the season. The Cards are in a tie for fourth with North Wilkes, but the Vikings own the tiebreaker after defeating East Wilkes 50-36 on Sept. 27.
The Cardinals feature quarterback Caeden Howell and a balanced offensive attack. Howell threw for 178 yards and two scores in a loss last week to Elkin, and tallied two touchdowns last fall in the loss to Central. Howell comes into tonight’s game with a county-best 1,788 yards.
“They are explosive,” said Turner. “Their coaching staff does an excellent job with their personnel. Their quarterback has a big arm, and he had a lot of weapons. Number 1 (senior receiver Garrett Vernon) is as explosive as anyone I’ve seen this year. It’s a lot to prepare for.”
Defensively, the Eagles “really get after it,” according to Wilmoth. “They have a lot of speed on that side of the ball. They have quality linebackers and kids in the secondary who really pose a problem.”
Turner sees improvement from earlier in the season in the Cardinals’ defense.
“They are better every week,” said Turner. “They were really good last week (against Elkin). It’s an aggressive bunch and we’ve seen them really handle some good offenses.”
Both teams are dealing with various injury issues and the injury bug has bitten the Eagles all season long.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Turner. “Every week we’ve had to deal with something new. But luckily we’ve gradually gotten a little healthier over the past couple of weeks. We’re probably in better shape injury-wise than we have in a while.”
“It’s November. Everyone is at least a little banged up,” said Wilmoth when asked of his injury situation. “We really won’t know the full extent of our injuries until later in the week, when we hope to get some folks back. And if not, we’ll just move on from there.”