Byrd, Highlanders roll past Bulldogs

By Jamie Combs

SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   On Friday night at Orr Field, Cloudland sensation Mark Byrd was harder to catch than a grasshopper with an oven mitt.
   Accounting for 170 all-purpose yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion during the first half, Byrd sparked the Highlanders to a 42-14 rout of Hampton in the football season opener for both teams.
   "Phenomenal," said Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford, describing the play of the gifted junior. "They just couldn't tackle him. I don't think I have to say anything about him. That was evident."
   Byrd's stellar outing came on a night in which the 'Landers were coping with the news that one of their starting linemen, Jeff Lunsford; teammate Jerry Tolley and former Cloudland player David McKinney were involved in a serious auto accident on 19E earlier in the day.
   "We just hoped that the Lord would take care of them and we'd take care of the rest," Byrd said. "I think we played with heart tonight. We all wanted to play hard for Jeff because we knew he would have played hard for us. I just hope we didn't let him down."
   The week was already going badly for Mike Lunsford (Jeff's uncle), whose son Michael, the starting quarterback on Cloudland's junior high team, suffered a broken arm in practice.
   "It's a miracle of God they're alive," the coach said of the three boys in the crash. "Jeff is the best lineman we've got, by far. He's beat all to pieces. The only thing that's serious, and how it is I don't know, is broken ankles. It's probably season-ending, but I'm just thankful that he's alive.
   "When I saw the vehicle before I got the news, I was preparing myself for them to tell me he was dead. I can carry what was left of (the car)."
   On the field, the 'Landers displayed the kind of performance that led them to last season's Class 1-A state championship game.
   Dakota Benfield complemented Byrd by gaining 89 yards and scoring two touchdowns on 17 carries, while Mark Barnett, Dane Christman and Nathaniel Baker anchored a defense that held the Bulldogs to 67 yards of rushing.
   "We're just not strong enough for them," said Hampton coach J.C. Campbell. "I thought we could do some things, but I guess we can't. We'll just have to start over, go back to the drawing board."
   The Bulldogs started out on the wrong note against the 'Landers, fumbling away the football on their fourth play from scrimmage. Jeremy Ward made the recovery, giving Cloudland possession on the Hampton 30-yard line, and that led to a Benfield 4-yard scoring run.
   Barnett booted the extra point for a 7-0 Highlander lead.
   Things got no better for the 'Dogs in their second offensive series as Mitchell Morton's punt attempt was smothered and blocked by Derrick Birchfield, setting up Cloudland at the Hampton 24.
   Byrd, from his quarterback position, dashed to the end zone the very next play, and another Barnett PAT made it a 14-0 score.
   Dangerously close to being blown out early, the 'Dogs responded with their best work of the game. Using 16 plays to march 63 yards, Hampton got on the scoreboard when Morton plowed across the goal line on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
   However, the effectiveness of all that hard work didn't last long. Two plays later, Byrd broke free for a dazzling 52-yard TD run.
   "I just followed the fullback, Mark Barnett," said Byrd, who tacked on a two-point conversion. "He kicked out and I just cut up behind him. He did an excellent job."
   Cloudland would make it 28-6 before the half ended, with Byrd reaching the end zone on a 3-yard run. His nifty 38-yard punt return to the Hampton 32 helped set up his own score.
   "We can't tackle, or we can't tackle them," Campbell said. "I thought we could make them earn stuff. I thought we could play a little better than what we did -- I really did."
   The 'Landers mustered a 9-play, 53-yard drive, capped by a 15-yard TD run from Benfield, to start the second half, then Baker followed up by grabbing a 2-point pass from Byrd.
   Barnett punched in the 'Landers' final score on a 1-yard run with 4:19 left in the contest. Cloudland led 42-6, and Hampton had yet to move the chains in the second half.
   "Early on our linebackers didn't play as well as I wanted them to -- Hampton drove the ball on us some," Mike Lunsford said. "In the second half we really started stuffing those dives and doing a lot better job. I thought we wore them down out there. We tried to play a lot of players. I think we took the life out of them a little bit."
   Barnett and Christman topped the defensive effort by recording 12 tackles apiece, with Baker ringing up two sacks among his 11 tackles. Gregory Birchfield contributed eight hits.
   Offensively, Byrd totaled 124 yards rushing on just nine carries.
   "We just tried to come in and play Cloudland football," Byrd said.
   Beating the clock for one more touchdown, Hampton scored with 15 seconds remaining as Morton found Eric Swain in the back of the end zone for a pretty 25-yard strike. A Corey McKinney reception was good for the conversion.
   Completing four passes for 52 yards on that final drive, Morton finished the game 8-of-15 for 86 yards. Swain totaled 44 yards on three catches, and Michael Peterson led the 'Dogs in rushing with 43 yards on 14 carries.
   Kevin Harrison racked up a Bulldog-high 11 tackles, followed by Jimmy Sarrett with nine and McKinney with eight.
   Cloudland's next game will be at Sullivan East, while Hampton pays a visit to North Greene.
   "I'm not sure right now we can stop North Greene, or the little league team or whatever," Campbell said. "I think that Cloudland's got a doggone good football team, but I can't tell by what we did. That's no measuring stick."