On a night where Western Albemarle’s seniors, including stalwart running back Austin Shifflett, came ready to play in what became their final game after the playoff race help they needed didn’t surfaced, it was a freshman’s tremendous play that put the game out of reach as the Warriors beat Orange County 34-18.
“I was rolling out left and they got on me and I tried to spin out of it,” said Western freshman quarterback Nathan Simon. “I was actually trying to throw it out of bounds but then (Carson) Tujague was there.”
Simon tried to wriggle free from the grasp of two defenders and as they slid toward his ankles, he spun quickly and nearly horizontal with the ground flicked the ball hard toward the sideline where the Warriors’ tight end Tujague was waiting, wide open. Tujague wove his way into the end zone for a 27-18 lead for the Warriors, a backbreaking play for the Hornets (2-4). It was one of several moments that indicated Simon is improving as the freshman went 6-for-9 for 141 yards and two touchdowns without a single interception.
“I thought Nathan did a nice job under duress — he’s a shifty kid and he found some open guys in some pretty tough situations,” said Western coach Ed Redmond.
Simon’s play helped Western (4-2) cash in on Shifflett’s performance as the senior wrapped up his career for the Warriors with what can best be termed as a typical Austin Shifflett night — 178 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. Western’s workhorse finished his senior season with 808 yards in just six games and finished with 3,385 yards for his career, believed to be fourth all-time at Western behind J.J. Sims (4,172 yards), Kent Henry (3,640 yards) and Linwood Jones (3,479 yards), an impressive feat, particularly when considering Shifflett’s condensed senior season.
“It was great to win and go out on a high note, it means a lot,” Shifflett said. “That’s all great to have, but the thing I’ll miss the most is the relationships with all these guys. It was really nice to play with them, grow and be a family with them.”
Shifflett was one of 10 seniors on the Western roster this year, a group that includes standout defensive end Grant Goodall, defensive lineman Ty Awkard, kicker Ellie Smartt and Spencer Powell. That group has certainly forged a legacy for the program in their time with the Warriors, especially Shifflett.
“I got really close with all the seniors super quick and Austin was an inspiration to me, he stuck with me on the field for hours and hours after practices and over the summer he got me right,” Simon said. “He’s amazing.”
Western trailed 12-0 out of the gate against the Hornets before the Warriors surged in the final minute of the first half with Shifflett drawing first blood on a 10-yard touchdown run. Then Western banged the ball off of an Orange up back on the kickoff and recovered the loose ball and Simon connected with Shifflett for a 38-yard catch and run off a screen. Quite suddenly, the Hornets were headed to the locker room down a point.
“I feel like what happened in this game is what happened all year long — we played close, competed and played well,” said Orange coach Jesse Lohr. “That one play at the end of the half changed (our) composure and the momentum of the ballgame.”
Orange responded, with quarterback Paul Poirier going over the top to Donald Brooks for a 57-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the third quarter for an 18-13 lead over the Warriors. It was Poirier’s third touchdown toss of the night with the first two going to Doug Newsome in the Charlotte-bound senior’s final game.
“It’s a special group, Donald Brooks and Dougie Newsome and Rebel Fretwell have played a lot of varsity football,” Lohr said. “Corey Amos, Caelan Reinhold, Jeremiah Roebuck, Devin Morris, Roxxo O’Donnell — all those guys bring so many things to our program every day.”
Poirier finished 15-for-28 for 233 yards and the three scoring tosses. Western managed to hold Orange to just 82 yards on the ground at a clip of just 2.8 yards per carry. By contrast, the Warriors were gaining 6.5 yards per attempt.
After Poirier’s toss to Brooks, Western got back to work. Shifflett scored again on the ground to take the lead at 21-18 with 7:15 left in the third and then in the fourth quarter, Simon had the wild pass to Tujague on third and 15 for a 27-18 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, Orange County fumbled it and Western pounced. Shifflett cashed in shortly thereafter with his fourth total touchdown, an 8-yard score that made it 34-18 with 8:13 to play.
Dakota Howell also helped drive the ground attack with 87 yards on seven touches and Howell also got involved in the passing attack with a critical 38-yard catch in the third quarter.
The Warriors’ season ends with the Region 3C playoff field consisting of , but not before they got to send an important group of seniors off with a victory.
“They’re a great group that’s worked hard, stayed with the program, dealt with COVID and they just have great leadership,” Redmond said. “It’s just a real solid group and I’m pretty sure they’re going to take good things away from our program.”