Highlanders primed for new season

By Wes Holtsclaw
SPORTS CORRESPONDENT

   Though the first game of the season is weeks away, Orr Field saw plenty of action this past week.
   As Hampton, Johnson County, and Mitchell County, N.C. fine-tuned their offensive and defensive work at the annual passing league, the 1-A state runner-up Cloudland Highlanders began their long march to another successful year.
   And after a week of working the offensive and defensive backfields, Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford saw a lot of effort on the field.
   "It was an excellent week," said Lunsford. "We had a really good time; the kids worked hard and played touch football. I hope they enjoyed it."
   Lunsford was pleased that his junior varsity unit got some work in the pre-season as well.
   "It was good that the JV got to play a bit. I felt better about that than anything, because they are always there, and it's good to see them getting some time to work as much as the varsity. They were at the elementary playing two games a night, so it was good."
   Although Cloudland was fine-tuning its passing, it's safe to say that the smashmouth run game will continue this season.
   "We're going to be a team to run the football, that's our bread and butter. You know, you come out here and only score maybe two or three times throwing. If we were running, we would've got more points."
   "But when you are forced, you have to throw the ball. We don't like to throw when you have seven on seven like we did here. So when it takes eight to stop the run, and there are three back there to stop the pass, it's going to be effective."
   "But Ezell-Harding could've played in this passing league and scored a lot more points. But it's important for us to try to make people stop the run, than to go to the pass."
   Lunsford has seen a lot of improvement out of his team, including Cole Gouge who will taste the slot of receiver this season.
   "One kid that's shown a lot early on is Cole (Gouge)," he said. "Cole's going to have a good year. His confidence is high, and he will help our offense and defense. He's just a good athlete."
   "His judgment at quarterback got him in trouble, but we can put the ball on him anytime we need to. He's worked with Mark (Byrd) and running a lot of different patterns together."
   Greg Birchfield Brandon Hughes, and Bobby Dugger showed a lot of effort this past week as well.
   "Gregory had a good week, he caught well and made good plays," Lunsford said. "(Brandon) Bebo Hughes and Bobby Dugger showed a lot. Bobby was working with the JV's, and he was catching touchdown after touchdown there. We would like more speed from him, but he is sure handed and is quick minded."
   After the championship game against Ezell-Harding, Lunsford and defensive coordinator Darrell Brewer have worked a lot of the secondary.
   "We put in a lot more coverage, with the man's, and the zone, and the covers," Lunsford remarked. "Last year we did a lot of things set in two defenses. We've done a lot as a result of not being able to defend Ezell."
   "Man defense is something you can't do all of a sudden, but we made a conscious effort. Brewer went to teach it well. Mitchell County posted us and they had better athletes, and when you play man, you have to guard them with pressure, and keep bringing pressure. That's a good thing about the passing league; it gives us something else to try."
   Lunsford hopes to accomplish a lot in the next few weeks, working towards the first game of the season against Hampton.
   "We have to get settled on our starters, we still have a lot of questions in places," he said. "We have a lot of returners, we have to figure our depth and work on rotations with the line."
   Lunsford is looking towards the linemen this year, after replacing two all-staters this season.
   "Zack Cooke is on the bubble right now," the Cloudland coach said. "He is a key person for us, and he's got to help us. We need to find another lineman or two to help with that role. Dale Baker has worked hard in the weight room. We hope he is mentally and physically ready, to see if he can handle both sides.
   "Jake Gibbs and Chris Sheets played a lot last year, and they will have to play more this year with a bigger role, and they will be better."
   Once practice gets started and the team is revived, it looks as if it will be another great season in Roan Mountain.