Cloudland football "springs" forward

By Wes Holtsclaw
SPORTS CORRESPONDENT

   Every year at Cloudland High School, spring football is a time of improvement and bouncing forward from the previous year. This year it was much different.
   Loaded behind a large rising senior class, the TSSAA 1-A state runner-up is ready to work and build back to the level of the season before. Coach Mike Lunsford was proud of his team's efforts this spring.
   "We had a pretty good spring," said Lunsford. "We didn't have any scrimmages, but we had good numbers and we built on some things from the end of last year. We've got some stuff to put in on our coverage and man to man, but we had some big improvement."
   Cloudland will be looking to quarterback Mark Byrd to continue his role on this year's team. Byrd thinks, overall, Cloudland will be primed and ready for this fall.
   "I believe we will be pretty good," said Byrd. "We'll be good on our line, and in some places overall. The ones that stepped in will help."
   After losing four starting senior offensive and defensive linemen, Cloudland entered spring drills with plenty of open competition. But following two weeks of training, it appears as though the right guys have stepped up to fill the spots.
   "There was a big improvement in the line," Mike Lunsford said. "Jeff Lunsford (230 lbs.) and Dale Baker (250 lbs.) have both gotten stronger, bigger and quicker than they were. Jason Grant is probably the strongest kid overall on the team -- he didn't start last year, but he came out and lifted hard, worked hard and put on the weight.
   "Chris Sheets gave a lot more effort, he's right at or above starting one way or two ways. Zack Cooke (260 lbs., 260 bench) has come on a lot. He didn't see that much time last year, but he really worked hard on getting bigger and quicker, and will make a big difference."
   Cloudland's coach saw a good deal of improvement at the tight end spot, where he will replace all-stater Brandon Odom.
   "From the tight end spot, we have had some awesome improvement," Mike Lunsford said. "Nathaniel Baker played a lot for us on the line last year, he has gotten stronger and bigger and he's working good at tight end. Dustin DeYoung is showing a lot of effort at the spot, as well as Aaron Stocton.
   "Stocton didn't play for us last year, but he will be a big help. He put on a lot of strength and weight, and he catches the ball well."
   Cloudland returns all of its backfield in the 2002 season, including all-staters Mark Byrd and Dakota Benfield. Derrick Birchfield, Jason Birchfield and Mark Barnett did an assortment of things at their positions and will be big names this fall.
   "Mark (Byrd) and Dakota (Benfield) will do what they're going to do this year," Mike Lunsford said. "Mark Barnett came on and worked hard, improved a lot. Jason Birchfield showed a lot of improvement, he benches 300 pounds and deadlifts 500. He's tough and he's got a step faster."
   Said Byrd: "We'll be pretty good. Dakota (Benfield), Mark (Barnett) and (Derrick) Birchfield, they will be doing well. Mark does a good job of blocking for us and I think we'll be where we need to be."
   Replacing senior wide receiver Jon Gibbs at the wideout spot will be rising senior Cole Gouge. Gouge, a former backup quarterback, will be looked to a lot this fall.
   "Cole is going to be at receiver," Mike Lunsford said. "He's got to play well for us to."
   Defensively, Cloudland returns its linebacking core and its defensive backfield. Look for linebackers Dane Christman and Mark Barnett, as well as ends Jeremy Ward and Jeff Lunsford to step up this fall at their respective positions.
   "We didn't have to change around too much," said Byrd. "But it will be the key, if we play good defense."
   Lunsford believes that he will see a good deal of improvement this summer during workouts before moving into the fall schedule, where Cloudland will travel to 4-A schools Cherokee and Sullivan East, among others.
   "We're going to do a seven on seven with Mitchell County in North Carolina, and we will do some stuff like that spread out. It will help us work on our catching and will help our backs work on coverage. It works well for a lot of the teams in North Carolina, and it should work well for us over here."
   If everything falls into place, Roan Mountain will be ready to rock this football season.