Longhorns brace for South Greene

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- After Johnson County's close 21-14 defeat to South Greene last season, one might have thought that Longhorn head coach Mike Atwood would have been somewhat pleased coming within a touchdown and a two-point conversion of beating a squad the school has not defeated in a decade.
   Think again.
   Atwood said it was the "Worst game they had ever played" following the loss, and he's hoping a repeat doesn't happen when the two teams take the field Friday night at Paul H. McEwen Stadium.
   "We blew our chance last year," Atwood said. "We had a chance to win, and we let it slip away. We didn't capitalize on opportunities. But we feel like if we don't win, we're not happy playing against anybody."
   Johnson County rebounded from the loss to make the playoffs in the tough Mountain Lakes Conference, while the Rebels had a phenomenal year in the 2A Watauga Conference. South Greene won the league, and its only loss in the regular season came to Class A state runner-up Cloudland."
   The Rebels had their season cut short with a loss to Oliver Springs in the first round of the TSSAA playoffs.
   But despite the season the Rebels had, and their dominance over Johnson County in recent years, the Longhorns come in as the slight favorite.
   Johnson County brings back 17 seniors to this year's roster, while South Greene was hurt heavily by graduation last season.
   Among the players that played big roles last season and have now gone on to bigger and better things include quarterback Adam Hansel, running back Neal Ricker and wide receiver Phillip Waddell. All three are now playing for Frankie DeBusk at Tusculum.
   Coach Larry Ricker has also had to replace a lot of his lineman, as the Rebels are very young at those spots.
   Atwood is hoping that all signs are pointing to a Longhorn victory Friday night.
   "I feel we've got a good chance to beat them," Atwood said. "They lost a lot of athletes, but he's got his best defensive player back. But I feel like we've got a pretty good team this year."
   That defensive player Atwood mentioned is Jeremy Sauceman. The Rebels have already played a game this year, and in that contest against Rutledge, Sauceman played brilliantly.
   In South Greene's 35-29 defeat to the Pioneers, Sauceman recorded 12 tackles as a linebacker. Offensively, he had 12 carries for 56 yards and three touchdowns as the Rebels' starting fullback.
   "He was their best linebacker last year," Atwood said. "We've got a game plan for him on offense. On defense, we're just trying to stop that dive they run."
   Overall, it was not a good night for South Greene last Friday. The Rebels did come back from a 29-7 deficit, but they committed five turnovers.
   Atwood knows that the loss will probably make the Rebels hungry to ruin Johnson County's season-opener.
   "We've talked about that," Atwood said. "I know Coach Ricker, and he doesn't take losing very easy. I know they're going to be ready."
   Tailback Jonah Dunn will make his miraculous return to the Longhorn lineup Friday night after major knee surgery. But according to Atwood, they're going to take it easy with him to start off.
   "We're going to try to platoon it with Aaron "Red" Payne and Jonah Dunn," Atwood said. "Daniel Dugger's going to be in that mix, too.
   "Jonah is going to be strictly offense. This game's very important, but the conference season is more important. We're going to try and keep him healthy for the conference games."
   The Longhorns seem to be looking good on the defensive side of the ball. Led by defensive end Justin Bishop, the Longhorns have a very strong line.
   "We're looking pretty good," Atwood said about the defense. "We're a little ahead of where we were last year at this time."
   And the Longhorn defense will be looking to take advantage of South Greene's inexperienced skill players. Quarterback Bruce Wright and tailback Ryan Ward are both sophomores.
   With 17 seniors on the squad, it figures to be a successful year in Mountain City. Atwood thinks his seniors not only want to have a banner year, but also break the losing streak against South Greene.
   "They're starting to feel a sense of urgency," Atwood said. "They know this is their last chance to South Greene. They also want to go the playoffs all four years. It seems pretty important to them.
   "Nobody on the team has beaten South Greene. We have talked about changing that."
   Not only do the Longhorns want to beat South Greene, but they would also like to be riding high going into next week's Mountain Lakes opener with Sullivan Central.
   "We feel like we need to go into Sullivan Central with momentum," Atwood said. "Not just go in with a win, but also do things like executing our offense. It would be a big confidence booster to beat South Greene."
   Game time is at 7:30.
   Kickoff is set for 7:30.