Lunsford already high on 'Landers starting eleven

By Wes Holtsclaw

   This is the year, according to many Roan Mountain locals.
   Of course, they are referring to the one thing that awakens the small community each fall, the Cloudland Highlander football team.
   With the return of three all-staters (Dakota Benfield, Mark Byrd and Dane Christman) and one of the best classes of rising seniors that has ever worn the blue and gold, the 'Landers are primed once again for a successful run at the Class 1-A level after another state semi-final appearance in 2002.
   However, this spring there have been many question marks after losing a dominant class and skill people on defense and the line.
   They were addressed in a successful two-week period, according to Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford.
   "We had a good spring and filled in the holes," Lunsford said. "People stepped up and did what we had to do to keep it at the same level. We have a lot returning, but we still have a lot of work to do.
   "The question will be depth. But our starting eleven is as good as any I've ever had."
   A big change was made in the defensive formations the squad used, as the 'Landers look to adapt to their talent.
   The squad had to replace all-conference selections Dale Baker, Jeremy Ward and Jason Grant on the line, but return Jeff Lunsford, who was seriously injured before last season in an automobile accident.
   Zach Cook, Jake Gibbs and Chris Sheets will return to starting positions this fall, while Steven Frye and Daniel Carroll showed good things during spring practice.
   Youngsters Jonathan Webb and Paul Baker were also impressive on the line.
   Cook knows it will be a tough task in his senior campaign, but believes hard work in the weight room will pay off.
   "I feel good about this season," Cook said. "But we've got to get in better shape and hopefully by the start, it'll be no problem in going both ways."
   The 'Landers will be strong at the linebacker position, returning Mr. Football nominee Christman. He will be joined by Jonah Horney, Aaron Stocton, Brian Simmons and John Harrison.
   "We looked good this spring," said Christman. "The line impressed me a lot and our new defense will be good."
   Said Lunsford of Christman: "Anytime you have a player with that much talent at the position, you know you'll be good there."
   A big gap to fill this season will be that of Mark Barnett, who shone at both linebacker and fullback.
   The 'Landers ran more one tight end sets this spring, testing Christman at fullback and Stocton at tight end.
   "Aaron's not a great blocker yet, but he can get them if he works hard in the summer," Lunsford said. "He caught the ball very well and we hope to pass it more."
   The squad also worked in Toby King at the quarterback position. He has improved and is expected to back up Cloudland's chief signal caller and two-time, first-team all-stater Byrd.
   Byrd and 'Lander tailback Benfield return after strong rushing seasons. Byrd set the state rushing record for a quarterback in a regular season, while Benfield tallied over 1,500 yards for the second straight year.
   Benfield and Byrd will also be key in a sound secondary with Brandon Hughes.
   A big key to Cloudand's success lies in the weightroom.
   Said Lunsford: "In the summer, it's not the same type of participation that you would like with jobs. But we keep the weightroom open all day."
   The Highlanders also made some coaching changes after defensive coordinator Darryl Brewer took a position at Avery County High School in North Carolina.
   Replacing Brewer is Bo Manis, who has been an assistant to the squad the past two seasons. Manis is a fiery young coach who adds a lot to the Cloudland team.
   "It will affect us negatively (losing Brewer), but we've filled in good with Bo Manis," said Lunsford. "The defense has worked real well and he did a good job helping us put it in."
   The 'Landers will play a tougher schedule this upcoming season, including 2002 Virginia Division 1 State runner-up and multiple-time state champion Appalachia, former Virginia state champ J.J. Kelly and Rye Cove.
   Each of Cloudland's conference games are on the road, but the team will host 4-A Cherokee and Sullivan East.
   "We've got to do what we do best," the coach said. "We can't worry about who we play and we've got to play perfect every week."
   As soon as summer practice kicks in, the blue and gold will scrimmage Pigeon Forge, Johnson County, David Crockett and Chuckey-Doak to prepare for the season.
   A lot of pressure will be on the stellar seniors, who are expected to be in the middle of another state championship chase on the mountain.
   "There's a lot of pressure on us," Christman said. "People have been looking at us since we were freshmen and I think we can pull through."
   The 'Landers open the 2003 season hosting inner-county rival Hampton on August 22.
   CLOUDLAND NOTES: The chance of seeing some Highlanders in college football uniforms will be very likely after this season as several players on the team are receiving solid looks.
   Mike Lunsford will carry a 126-38 record into the 2003 season, and his .780 percent winning percentage ranks as one of the best in the state.
   The coach and former Cloudland lineman Dale Baker will be participating in this year's Tennessee East-West Shrine Game in Murfreesboro.
   Lunsford will be an assistant coach, while Baker will play on the line for the east squad.
   We will have more on this later this week in the STAR.