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Wolverines pick apart Pickens to start 3-0
West Forsyth’s Ethan Shirley runs for a touchdown in the first quarter Friday night at Pickens. Shirley also returned a kick for a touchdown for the Wolverines’ first points of the game. - photo by Jared Putnam

JASPER — West Forsyth took its first real road trip on Friday. The winning ways the Wolverines have established this season came along for the ride, too.

West’s Ethan Shirley ran back a kick for a touchdown and scored once on offense, while the defense limited Pickens to a single score on the game’s opening drive, and the Wolverines enjoyed a 42-7 romp in the Region 7-AAA opener.

The game was West’s first varsity contest outside of the county. The only previous road game for the Wolverines (3-0) was a backyard brawl at North Forsyth.

Despite the lopsided final, it was a frustrating start for the Wolverines’ defense. Pickens (0-2) took over at the 35 after the opening kick went out of bounds, then traveled 65 yards in five plays to draw first blood.

Dragon quarterback Jesse Cantrell (123 total yards) scampered for 54 yards on the drive and scored the touchdown, running right on a keeper for 35 yards to put the Dragons up 7-0. A 15-yard penalty also hurt West on the series.

West coach Frank Hepler pointed to that series as evidence that his team wasn’t ready to play at the opening whistle.

“We can’t fall asleep on the bus. We’ve got to be ready ... for the opening gun, so it was a good learning experience for us,” Hepler said of his team’s need to adjust to playing away from home.

The Dragons’ quick lead was extremely short-lived, as the Wolverines tied the game without taking an offensive snap. Shirley, a sophomore, fielded the ensuing kickoff and sped 95 yards for the touchdown, locking things up 7-7 with 9:13 left in the first quarter.

Hepler said his coaches try to impress on players the importance of contributing to the team in all three facets of the game.

“We work our special teams just as hard [as offense and defense],” he said.

West’s defense came alive after the opening-drive disappointment. Pickens touched the ball 11 more times in the game, with the results being five punts, five turnovers and a quick partial drive that was ended by the halftime buzzer. Three of Pickens’ punts followed three-and-out possessions.

Senior David Camp killed two Dragon drives in the first half, picking up a fumble and snaring an interception. Spencer Cramer and Dylan Siewert each recovered a fumble in the second half, as well.

The Wolverines’ offense also pitched in, with Ben Emert (117 rushing yards) running 11 yards for a touchdown to end a 79-yard drive late in the first quarter, and Shirley running 40 yards on the opening play of West’s next possession to score and make it 21-7 with 2:38 left in the opening period.

“I think they realized at the end of that first quarter that ‘Hey, we’d better wake up a little bit.’ And they did, and they played hard,” Hepler said of his team.

West added two more scores in the second quarter to establish a 35-7 lead at the break.

Emert carried the ball seven times on a 52-yard drive that ate up about five minutes in the second quarter and ended on a one-yard carry from Colton Cloud with 3:42 left before halftime. A 37-yard touchdown pass from Lance Baker to Jason Klanac with 51 ticks left in the opening half gave West the 28-point halftime advantage.

The Wolverines were in danger of surrendering the momentum as the second half got underway, as Emert lost a fumble on the opening play of the half.

Pickens set up shop at the Wolverines’ 44 and drove all the way down to the 3, but the West defense stood strong and held the Dragons off the board. Cantrell threw incompletions into the end zone on both third and fourth down, resulting in a turnover on downs.

“We were starting to rotate some younger kids in [on defense], so they got a good experience of being under the gun and having their backs against the wall, so it was good to see them step up and get a stop down there,” Hepler said.

After that came the back-breaker. West took over at its own 3 with 6:03 left in the third. Six plays and about two minutes later, the Wolverines were back in the end zone, as Parker Chapman broke around the left side and turned upfield to go 68 yards and score.

Pickens made no serious threat from there, with a running clock in the fourth quarter speeding the game to its conclusion.

While the game was a crossover contest in Region 7-AAA, Hepler said he stressed to the team that all region games count, both in terms of potential playoff tiebreakers and in terms of sending a message.

“Because they’re so good, we wanted to let [the teams in the region] know, ‘Hey, we want to be part of your region and show that we can play with you guys,’” the coach said.

West is home for another crossover match Friday, when it plays host to the Creekview Grizzlies from Canton.