Let’s take you back six years ago …
… to Weddington, N.C., a small-ish suburb of Charlotte that lies a brisk bike ride from the South Carolina border.
This is the birthplace of a friendship between a pair of star youth football players. Two budding talents who would soon grow up to become the two best running backs in the state and two of the nation’s best. A duo that could one day renounce wearing opposing jerseys to share the same backfield if they choose to put that stress on SEC, Big Ten or ACC defensive coordinators.
What started out as a typical game in the Greater Charlotte area’s Little Panthers Pop Warner Little League between Evan Pryor’s South Charlotte Patriots and Will Shipley’s Weddington Titans quickly became a memorable, back-and-forth high-scoring classic.
With each touchdown run off left tackle by Titans star running back Shipley, an answering score came via a sprinting sweep up the right sideline by Patriots stud ball carrier Pryor.
“I think it was one of the most fun games I’ve had in my life.”– Evan Pryor on a youth football game against Will Shipley
Shipley and Pryor traded blow for blow until, finally, Shipley’s team took a one-score lead in the closing minutes. Pryor, though, had one last response in him … but a hero’s ending turned into a rendition closer to “Casey at the Bat.”
Even today, as the two are now high school juniors, Pryor still remembers the details as he ran up the field and stepped out of bounds while trying to lead a frantic comeback.
“The clock wasn’t supposed to be rolling,” Pryor told Eleven Warriors. “They cheated us, man. They won by a touchdown. I ran out of bounds and the clock kept rolling, and I was crying.
“It was one of those plays where you get downfield and there’s nothing else there, so you just get out of bounds. There were like 17 seconds left if I remember right, and the clock just kept rolling. My dad was a coach, and he was just screaming in the pressbox to ‘stop the clock!’ The clock didn’t stop, and they won. That hurt my heart.”
From those quotes, it may sound like it comes off as a heartbreaking dagger to this day. But even through the phone, you can feel the smile from Pryor as he vividly recalls that game’s final seconds because...
“It was cool, though,” Pryor said. “I think it was one of the most fun games I’ve had in my life.”
Afterward, Pryor and Shipley shook hands, meeting each other for the first time.
Ever since, they’ve become tight friends, watching each other star at William Amos Hough High School (Pryor) and Weddington High School (Shipley), where each player’s 247Sports Composite rankings match up well with each other and are among the state's most impressive over the past few years.
Running back Zamir White was the No. 1-ranked overall prospect in North Carolina in 2018, but since then, the highest-ranked RB in the state came in as the state's No. 16 overall prospect in 2019 and No. 24 overall in 2020.
Pryor and Shipley are both ranked as top-100 prospects nationally.
They’ve only briefly brought up that game with each other one time – during postgame interaction after Pryor squared off with Shipley’s Weddington squad when Pryor was a freshman at his previous school Ardrey Kell.
But that Pop Warner thriller was the beginning of what the two are now – real friends who “have a genuine relationship even before all this recruiting stuff happened,” says Pryor, and who go through weight room and on-field workouts together, have gone on recruiting visits to the same schools (including for the Alabama-LSU game last weekend), keep each other informed via text about their recruitments and have envisioned partnering up in the same backfield.
“We have that conversation all the time because we both see ourselves as backs who can tote the ball and also catch it out of the backfield,” Pryor said. “So whether that’s one of us in the backfield and one in the slot, or even both of us in the backfield, that’s a conversation we’ve had before.”
It’s a realistic scenario for both Pryor and Shipley to be in Ohio State’s future plans because…
1) Alford has told Pryor that because it’s getting late in the game for the Buckeyes to nab a 2020 running back. So if they don’t get one in this cycle, “then they’re definitely gonna take two in ‘21 so that’s something I know about,” Pryor said.
2) When Pryor watches J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague III thrive off each other and showcase their ability to successfully coexist in the same backfield, it gives him more confidence that he and Shipley could be a fire-and-ice type of combo:
“From looking at it on Saturdays, it looks like (Dobbins and Teague) are competing with each other,” Pryor said. “They’re playing to win, but they’re competing with each other for who can rip off one run or who can rush for more yards. I think that’s what keeps them at the top of the nation.”
Pryor envisions he and Shipley having a similar heated competition that allows each other’s level of play to rise to what it’s capable of if the two were to team up in college.
It’s already been that way for years as the two friends look to one-up each other, whether that’s in on-field production or in joint training sessions.
Highlights of Pryor and Shipley in freshman year matchup against each other:
“I think it pushes us harder because we’re both trying to be the best,” Pryor said. “So I think it’s an iron sharpens iron type of deal. Even on Saturdays, we check up on each other to see how we did (on Friday).”
Nearly three weeks ago, those conversations included a quick evaluation from Shipley on his unofficial visit to Ohio State for the Buckeyes’ thumping of Wisconsin in the rain. Shipley told him the environment was great, the fans electric and Ohio State handling business made it even better.
Soon enough, Pryor will get his own chance at walking through that tunnel at the Shoe to feel that roar of 104,000 fans showering down on him when he makes an unofficial visit for his first Ohio State game. If he wants an electric atmosphere, he chose the right time to come, as he’ll be in attendance for the Buckeyes’ Nov. 23 bout with Penn State.
In addition to the Bama-LSU game, Pryor has been to some of the best games in college football this season – the “White Out” at Penn State, Georgia’s win over Notre Dame and North Carolina’s wild last-minute win over Miami.
The common denominator in those latter three? All were night games.
It’s been a chief complaint among Buckeye fans who have been eager to see their team in a primetime showdown under the lights at the Shoe but will only be granted that opportunity once this season. The Michigan State game provided a unique setting for recruits to revel in, but the Wisconsin game did not take place at night, nor will the Penn State matchup.
Especially for a recruit like Pryor, who’s been to those big-time night games this season, does that dampen the atmosphere at all?
“It doesn’t take anything away,” Pryor said. “I think if the fan base is there and all engaged, I don’t think it matters what time of day it is as long as everyone’s in there and it’s rocking and the team’s doing what they’re supposed to do.”
And hopefully for Pryor, this time the clocker operators will be doing what they’re supposed to be doing too.