Vance High quarterback Austin Grier has had to sacrifice this season.
Playing on a team blessed with a trio of talented running backs, Grier has taken a step back from what he did in 2019, when he threw for 3,435 yards and 19 touchdowns, and ran for 721 yards.
Where Grier averaged 229 passing per game in that 2019 season, when he led Vance to its first N.C. 4AA state championship, Grier has averaged 139 yards passing per game in 2021.
But he has helped Vance (9-1) reach a third consecutive championship game. The Cougars will play unbeaten Rolesville (9-0) Saturday at N.C. State.
“It’s not really hard,” Grier said of accepting his new role. “Of course, you have individual goals you want to meet, but at end of day, a win is a win no matter if you have 1,000 yards or zero yards. My goal coming in was to win a state championship, and we’re in position to do that.”
This season, Grier has completed 126-of-150 passes for 1,391 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s sharing the backfield, and touches, with a pair of senior running backs — Joseph Morris and Asauni Allen — who are college recruits, and sophomore Power 5 recruit Daylan Smothers, who was named the winner of the N.C. High School Heisman award this week.
And, despite his numbers dropping, Vance coach Glenwood Ferebee said Grier has gotten better this season.
“His stats may not show it, because we’re able to run the ball this year,” Ferebee said, “but he’s still been productive, as far as his completion percentage, and he has a better grasp of the offense, and he’s able to get us out of bad plays and all that. So he’s come a long way.”
Moving across town
Grier, 18, played his freshman and sophomore years at South Mecklenburg. His mother moved the family to north Charlotte before his junior year when she got a new job in the area, Grier said.
“It just happened to be in the Vance area,” Grier said, “and they also have a great football team, and it was a great coincidence.”
Grier said coming from a program like South Mecklenburg, which was struggling at the time, and coming to a burgeoning power like Vance was a bit of culture shock.
“When you don’t expect to win,” Grier said, “everything seems like a drag. At Vance, weightlifting was different. We never really committed to it (at South) because we didn’t think we would win. When I got to Vance, everybody was putting in work, and once you get around people who want to win, and expect to win, you develop that mindset.”
Grier won the starting quarterback job and didn’t mind playing the most important position on the field for a team coming off a 9-7 state finals loss to Wake Forest in 2018 and was looking to get back.
“The expectations are different,” Grier said, “but for me personally, I always wanted to do my best and not disappoint my teammates or anybody around. So when I got here, I had to play my game, and I knew everything would work out.”
Saturday, college, and the best way to say goodbye
Grier said he’s dreamed of Saturday for a long time — a chance to win the last high school football game he’ll ever play at Vance.
He’ll play in the Ivy League, at Columbia, next fall. He plans to major in economics, carrying a 3.6 grade-point average with him to college.
“One thing I’ve learned about school is it’s not how intelligent you are,” Grier said, “but what are you willing to do. Really and truly, there are a lot of people I know who are smarter than me, but don’t feel like doing the work. Since my freshman year, I have had to keep my head down and stay in the books and I knew something good would come out of it, and it would leave me at a higher level.”
“I didn’t realize it would be an Ivy League school,” he said. “That’s pretty crazy.”
Grier also describes the state final with that same term: pretty crazy.
He said, at one point, he wasn’t sure if Vance — which will change its name to Julius Chambers High this summer — would get a chance to play football at all. He said working through all the COVID-19 protocols has been tough.
Grier said all of that makes winning Saturday’s game even more important, even more potentially memorable.
“It’s a really big deal in the grand scheme of things,” he said “When we go off to college and live our lives and look back on it, it’ll be something kind of legendary — because in the span of two years, if we win, we become the first and last team at this school to win a state championship. We’ve had great players come through here, and for one reason or another, they were not able to get it done. For us to do that would be pretty remarkable.”
In a year where Grier has sacrificed a lot of things, Ferebee think a win Saturday would be the most remarkable thing of all.
“He would be the first and last quarterback to win state at Vance,” Ferebee said. “His stats are down, but for him to lead us to a state championship and win again would be the biggest stat he can get as a quarterback.”
Vance vs. Rolesville
What: Vance (9-1) vs. Rolesville (9-0) in N.C. 4AA state championship game
When: Saturday, 5 p.m. at N.C. State
TV: WCCB, Channel 18; Spectrum Channels 11 and 1212
Streaming: NFHS Network
Tickets: $14 (none sold at the gate).
Rolesville Quick Hits: Rolesville is making its fourth playoff appearance and its first state finals appearance. The Rams are 3-3 in the postseason. Junior QB Byrum Brown, a finalist for the N.C. High School Heisman, has thrown for 1,725 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Vance Quick Hits: The Cougars, 61-11 the past five years, are in their third straight state final. Vance is 25-16 in 18 playoff appearances. Vance has won three straight games since losing 29-22 to Hough on April 9.