Lunsford, Baker help key East to Shrine Bowl win

By Wes Holtsclaw

   Two weeks ago, Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford and former offensive lineman Dale Baker played big roles during the annual Tennessee East-West Shrine Bowl All-Star Classic
   Lunsford was an assistant coach, specializing on the defensive line, while Baker tallied a pair of sacks in the East's 24-14 victory over the West at Middle Tennessee State's Floyd Stadium.
   "It was an honor, first to coach, and it was a great experience to be around great players and coaches," said Lunsford. "Most of the coaches were from big-time football programs and two of the coaches played for Bear Bryant at Alabama. I enjoyed it, but it was a lot of hard work and I won't ever forget it."
   The West squad led 14-0 at the half, but the East squad scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to win.
   "It was a great game," Lunsford said. "A hard hitting, tough game. We gave up 14 points the first two times off of turnovers, but the second half we only gave up 11 yards. We ran the same defense we had been working on in the spring (at Cloudland).
   "It was a lot of fun knowing the defense, which it would've been awful if I was lost the whole time. I had a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted with the line, and they told me to turn them loose."
   Lunsford also worked with the linebackers during the week.
   "I worked with Willie Nelson from Boyd-Buchanan, and a kid from Gordonsville who was a great kid and fun to coach," he said. "Bart McMillan from Bristol, he started for us at middle-linebacker. It was a lot of fun, but I was ready to come home when it was over."
   In his final high school football game, Baker took in the thrill of playing with other players from across the state, but kept a tiring pace through the two-a-day practices.
   "It was great," Baker said. "There were a lot of nice people down there. The days were really long and there was not much time to rest because we were always on the go."
   "I met a lot of cool people and it felt good knowing I could compete with them," he said. "One of my goals was to start."
   Said Lunsford: "Dale won a position and was solid the first day of practice, but he started getting lazy. I told him what people thought about Cloudland, and East Tennessee football was determined by what he did. I told him to represent Upper East Tennessee football well, and he did. I'm proud of him.
   "He started at defensive tackle and had two or three sacks and some tackles in the backfield. He had a big sack after we took the lead for the first time and needed to shut them down."
   It was quite an achievement for the East team to pull out the victory over the West squad, which had several players recruited by larger Division I colleges.
   Baker played against two Division I players throughout the game and fared well against them.
   A player not recruited by many schools, he still hopes the game will help provide him a chance to play college football and would change plans for the opportunity.
   "I'd like to play anywhere," Baker said. "I did really well against a guy who's going to play at Arkansas and a guy going to play in Texas. The players here are as good as the rest of the state -- there's nothing different."
   "The colleges recruit size," Lunsford said. "But I thought our players were as good. Their kids had a lot of potential, and six or seven are going to SEC schools. A lot of them were projects and could be something down the road, but I'd rather have a kid that can play."
   "We had four single-A players and all four started or got a lot of time," the coach added. "Will Healy (of Boyd-Buchanan) was the starting quarterback and could've been our offensive MVP. Nelson, who I thought was our best defensive player, Dale and the Gordonsville player did well."
   "One thing that gets in smaller schools heads is that the bigger schools have more talent," he said. "You can take the 1-A All-Stars and the 4-A All-Stars and not have that big of a difference, especially with the private schools."
   There was one big difference between the squad and most regular high school teams across the state: work ethic.
   "One thing I did notice, you can tell the players there have worked and spent time in the weightroom," Lunsford added. "Nelson benched 410 pound, and that's some things we're struggling with up here (at Cloudland) with players in the 300 range. But I got to know kids and personal things about them. I got up close and it was a fun experience."
   "It was different from regular high school ball," said Baker. "I liked the team I was on and the coaches helped me a lot. I'm glad Coach Lunsford was down there."
   The week of work was also a fun time for Baker, who got to visit the Tennessee Titans during practice.
   "It was a good time hanging out with the friends I'd met," he said. "We had fun at Hooters and talked to (Tennessee Titan's kicker) Joe Nedney forever at the Titans practice."
   The game was viewed by a crowd of 3,200 and a Fox SportsSouth television audience.
   The Shrine Bowl was created by the Tennessee Shrine Association to raise money and awareness for the organization's hospitals, where free medical care is given to children under the age of 18 who have orthopedic problems, spinal cord injuries or severe burns.