'Landers, 'Dogs load up cannons for season opener

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   If the 2001 season of the Cloudland High football team had been a bow and fiddle, watching the Highlanders would have been like watching Charlie Daniels play "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
   Cloudland's performance, producing a school-record 13 wins and an appearance in the Class 1-A championship game, was definitely a scorcher.
   Head coach Mike Lunsford hopes the memories of a year ago will have nothing to do with the mindset of his 'Landers when they host the Hampton Bulldogs on Friday night.
   "I don't even know if they think about (last season) that much, just to be honest," Lunsford said. "That's probably something they'll think about 10 years down the road, and be proud of. I hope they are not dwelling on what happened last year, good or bad.
   "It's time to look forward to the Bulldogs. That's what, as coaches, we've been concentrating on and trying to prepare for."
   Kickoff time is 7:30 at Orr Field, where a capacity crowd is expected to attend.
   There seems to be an added amount of anticipation for this game, and with good reason.
   A nice core of star players -- Mark Byrd, Dakota Benfield, Mark Barnett, Derrick Birchfield, Dane Christman -- are back on the field to spearhead the Highlanders, who own a 34-4 record over the last three seasons.
   When Hampton head coach J.C. Campbell looks at Cloudland, he says: "I don't see much drop-off (from last year). They've got all of their key people back. They may not be quite as strong in the line because of the big (Keith) Buchanan boy (graduating). They'll miss the (Brandon) Odom kid some, but I don't see any drastic difference in them."
   Despite the fact Hampton's last victory against Cloudland came in 1997 -- the 'Landers own a seven-game winning streak in the series -- the Bulldogs do contribute to the pregame hype.
   After getting their program headed back in the right direction last season (6-5 record, playoff appearance after three straight losing seasons), the 'Dogs, returning most of their main players, should be an improved ball club.
   Fourth-year starters Michael Peterson, Josh Nave and Corey McKinney are joined by Mitchell Morton and Jimmy Sarrett in giving the 'Dogs a solid foundation. Linemen Robby England, Brad Hodge and Pat Murphey help lead a veteran outfit.
   "Hampton has a very good football team," Lunsford said. "They've been predicted by just about everybody to win the 1-AA region, and possibly make some noise in the playoffs. They've got some good linemen and tremendous athletes; they've got kids who can catch the ball and make plays.
   "It's the most well-rounded Hampton team we've seen in quite a few years -- maybe ever."
   For Hampton to think about pulling an upset, it must first keep quarterback Byrd (926 yards rushing, 701 yards passing, 33 combined TDs last season) and running backs Benfield (1,523 rushing, 28 TDs) and Birchfield (687 rushing, 12 TDs) from wreaking their usual havoc.
   The best way to do that, of course, is keeping the ball out of their hands as much as possible.
   "We've got to move the football," Campbell said. "If we can't move the football on them and keep giving it back to them, it's 'Katie bar the door.'"
   The 'Dogs figure to boast a good running game keyed by Peterson, who missed two games to injury last season but still picked up 734 yards on the ground, and the blocking of England, Hodge and Murphey.
   When the 'Dogs try to establish their passing game with Morton (691 yards passing in '01), their highly-touted junior quarterback, they know they have to be careful. Falling one interception short of tying a Cloudland single-season record last year, Byrd picked off 11 passes.
   "You have to know where he's at," Campbell said. "He's a very good pass defender. He's quick and he can outrun anybody we've got. We can't give him a chance at it, that's for sure.
   "But we're not going to run and hide because he's back there. We'll try to complete it. If he gets it, so be it."
   Christman, who led the 'Landers in both tackles (143) and sacks (9) a year ago from his defensive end spot, and Barnett, a linebacker who finished second on the team in tackles with 119, also complicate things for the Bulldog attack.
   Hampton will try to contain Cloudland's high-octane offense with productive play from its linebackers, including Sarrett (team-high 88 tackles in '01) and Nave (77 tackles).
   McKinney is a good player at safety, and Adam Potter is usually worth watching on the defensive line.
   Lunsford said he likes the speed and quickness in his backfield, and is hoping to see his team come out and be aggressive.
   He also expects linemen Dale Baker and Jeff Lunsford to begin emerging from the shadows of past players, and believes that Nathaniel Baker (end) and Jason Birchfield (RB/TE) can start making names for themselves on Friday night.
   Ultimately, the Cloudland coach knows that his team will be expected to win.
   "I like a whole lot better being the 'hunter' than the 'hunted,'" Mike Lunsford said. "We've always been the underdog since I got here. I really feel like we should be the underdog going into this game. You've got a good single-A school going against a good double-A school -- that's the way I look at it."
   While Campbell isn't buying Mike Lunsford's "underdog" rhetoric, he feels as if his Bulldog team has increased its capabilities.
   "I think there are more things we can do this year, and we can do some things a little better than we have in the past," Campbell said. "We're in a little better shape than we were when we played them a year ago. We'll be a little better on defense, I hope. We may not be any better against them, but we'll be a better team."