Bulldogs, 'Landers ready to rumble

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   The Week Zero atmosphere at Orr Field should be as filled with electricity as ocean air is filled with the smell of salt.
   Hampton and Cloudland, teams that figure to do quite well this year, open up their respective seasons tonight on the Highlanders' home turf, and the fierce rivals are expected to draw a huge crowd.
   The battle lines are definitely set, but Highlander coach Mike Lunsford doesn't guarantee a good show.
   "If we can get the field painted, we'll have a game," said Lunsford. "That's all I know to tell you. I'm not sure we can get the field painted. You have to try and spend so much time getting things like this done, it's hard to concentrate on getting the coaching done.
   "These early openers are hard. The away team has got the advantage."
   Bulldog coach J.C. Campbell would have surely disagreed after walking off the practice field Tuesday evening.
   "We're struggling," Campbell said at the time. "The new people are having trouble blending and the old people are having trouble blocking."
   Campbell's attitude had changed for the better by the end of Wednesday's workout.
   "We looked a little better," said Campbell on the week's final day of contact drills. "I've been awfully depressed. I hate to stink it up, you know. If they beat you, I can live with it. I hate to go up there and not play well, and all that sort of stuff.
   "We worked on our offense before we did a lot of drills and stuff and got them all give out. Our concentration was a little better, and our execution was a little better."
   The 'Landers, coming off a 13-1 season that saw them reach the Class 1-A state semifinals, have kept a stranglehold on Hampton in recent years, winning the last nine meetings between the two schools.
   Asked if those nine straight victories mean anything heading into tonight's action, Lunsford said he didn't realize his team was on such a roll in the Cloudland-Hampton series.
   "I didn't even know it, didn't have a clue," he said. "We've not talked about it. This is a different team. What you did last year doesn't count a point right now."
   The 'Landers and 'Dogs twice got together last season, and a Week Zero affair in Roan Mountain saw Cloudland defeat Hampton by at least three touchdowns for the seventh straight time, 42-14.
   The 'Dogs, however, made a much better showing the second time around, dropping a 30-20 decision in Hampton. That better showing, according to Campbell, doesn't mean a thing when the first whistle blows tonight.
   "That was last year," said Campbell, whose 2002 team finished with an 8-3 record and a Watauga Conference title. "We don't have (all) those players."
   Cloudland is led by its awesome trio of Mark Byrd, who's an all-purpose threat, tailback Dakota Benfield and linebacker Dane Christman.
   Byrd, a star quarterback, defensive back and return specialist, amassed more than 3,000 all-purpose yards (1,728 rushing), scored 30 touchdowns and intercepted 10 passes last season. He and Benfield, a two-time 1,500-yard rusher, have been thorns to the Bulldog defense, and Christman, who led the 'Landers in tackles and sacks in 2001 and 2002, can give an opposing offense fits.
   Hampton is led offensively by quarterback Mitchell Morton, who is nursing an injured ankle, and wide receiver Eric Swain. Morton amassed 1,168 yards and 20 touchdowns in combined passing and rushing a year ago, while Swain caught 24 balls for 380 yards.
   Lineman Adam Potter (74 tackles, 5.5 sacks in '02) and safeties Morton and Justin Waycaster pace the Bulldog defensive unit.
   "I think what's important for our team is to go out and play like a football team," Campbell said. "We've got to block and move the ball some, that's for sure. If we're going to contend, we've got to complete some passes."
   Highlander hopes, said Lunsford, will hinge greatly on the lines, where both clubs have a large supply of large bodies.
   "I think the team that wins most of the battles in there is going to get the upper hand," Lunsford said. "Hampton is awfully big and strong. I'm not sure if we can hang in there with them or not."
   Jeff Lunsford and Chris Sheets bolster the 'Lander lines, while Brandon Bowling and Eddie Lance serve as key men up front for the 'Dogs.
   Kickoff is set for 7:30.