Longhorns no longer doormats

By Matt Hill

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- Another high school football season is upon us, and you're not going to find a better brand of the sport than here in Northeast Tennessee.
   High school football has a rich tradition here, but there are few places that stand out.
   Dobyns-Bennett, Elizabethton and Cloudland have been among the cream of the crop the last few seasons. They're all well-coached, and deserve to be recognized among the state's best.
   But while these schools have been garnering most of the attention, there's one program up in the mountains that has been overlooked the last few years.
   The wins and losses of this program may not be impressive, but what is impressive is how far this team has come.
   I'm talking about the Johnson County Longhorns.
   When head coach Mike Atwood took over in 1997, the Longhorns were coming off a miserable 0-10 season.
   It didn't take long for the Longhorns to improve.
   Johnson County went 1-9 in 1997, then improved to 3-7 in 1998. The Longhorns dropped from Class 3A to 2A in 1999, and proceeded to go 5-6 to earn their first playoff trip in a decade that season.
   Coach Atwood's most impressive season came in 2000, when the Longhorns went 8-3 and gave state powerhouse Austin-East all it wanted in the playoffs.
   The Longhorns were riding high, but then things looked to be on the downswing again when the TSSAA ruled that the school had to move up from Class 2A.
   Instead of going back to 3A and having to travel to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Rutledge, the Longhorns decided to move up into the Class 4A Mountain Lakes Conference to play teams like Elizabethton, Tennessee High, Sullivan Central and Sullivan South.
   The Longhorns accepted the challenge despite having a rebuilding team. In probably Atwood's best coaching job yet, the Longhorns made the playoffs despite having the smallest enrollment in Class 4A.
   To put this in perspective, the Longhorns would be the smallest school in Class 3A.
   A lot of credit has to go to Coach Atwood and his staff. They thought the Longhorns could do big things, even though the odds were stacked against them.
   It should also be mentioned that the Longhorns have only two paid coaches, Mike and his brother Austin, who is also the boys basketball coach. The rest of the coaches on the staff are volunteers.
   Credit should also be given to Johnson County Junior High coach Delza Noble. That program has made great strides, and has become a strong feeder system for the high school.
   But most of the credit should go to the players on the football team.
   They may not of been as talented as some guys, but they made up for it with hard work and determination.
   The Johnson County football team now believes that it is going to win every game, and it's been a total team effort.
   Despite becoming a successful program, the Longhorns still haven't earned everybody's respect.
   At one of the games last year, a local radio announcer kept making derogatory remarks about the Longhorn program. It looks like it's going to take a few more wins to earn his respect.
   That shouldn't be the case. These guys work hard in practice and play hard every game. And I don't think you're going to out coach the Longhorns very much, either.
   It will be interesting to see if Johnson County can go for a fourth-straight playoff berth. But whether or not that happens, Johnson County football has still come a long ways.
   FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK
   * A former Johnson County assistant football coach has become the head football coach at Unaka High School.
   Mike Ensor, who was an assistant at Johnson County during the 1995 season, was recently named Mickey Taylor's replacement.
   Ensor, who played sports at Unaka, went back to his alma-mater in 1996 after a year in Mountain City. Ensor has been the head baseball coach at Unaka for the past few years.