'Landers back to drawing board

  By Rebecca Pierson
  Asst. Sports Editor
  rpierson@starhq.com
  The Cloudland Highlanders are about to embark on a new era -- a post Lunsford and Mark Byrd era. Not only has the teamhad to make adjustments to losing its former head coach and star quarterback, but it has also had to adjust to losing a lot of their starters from last season.
  Gary Keith, who has been an assistant for over 20 years, took the 'Landers helm this past spring. While a heart surgery sidelined Keith for the majority of the summer, he was back on the field this past Monday making sure the team was prepared for what may be the most difficult preseason situation in a number of years.
  "We only have one experienced lineman," Keith said. "We lost two 300 pound tackles, a Mr. Football tight end that weighed 210, one guard that was 270, another guard that was 230, and a 260 pound center. We lost the whole starting line. We lost an All-State quarterback and an All-State running back. Jonah Horney is the only kid back who has carried on varsity."
  When Keith was asked on how he has taken to the adjustment to head coach, he simply said, "I guess I'll find out on Friday night."
  "It's new," he said. "I have done this since 1980 but only as assistant. It is different. There is a whole lot more pressure on you as head coach. I thought there wouldn't be that much difference, but it is."
  With the team being in a new and difficult situation, the team is looking at its few returning players to take a hold of their leadership roles to drive the team into the season.
  "I am looking for the seniors to step up," Keith said.
  The 'Landers have seven seniors in its roster this season, two of which haven't played since their freshman year or before. While Sam Potter and Bobby Dugger don't bring much experience onto the field, they bring some much needed muscle. Cody Jones is another senior who has stepped back onto the field.
  "Dugger has looked good in the passing league and in practice," Keith said. "Jones went about two years without playing and he is getting better every day running the ball."
  Seniors Toby King, Jimmy Johnson, Jonathan Pritchard, and Ricardo Mayse are the returning seniors. Junior Horney will also be taking more of a leadership role as he leads the team with the most experience running the ball.
  "He had some pretty good runs last year," Keith said. "When we took [Mark] Byrd out and put him in as receiver, King went in as quarterback, so he has some experience. In all eight junior varsity games, he played in last year."
  Pritchard and King both have the added pressure this season as leading seniors on the field.
  "I don't think that we have quite yet adjusted but we are getting there," Pritchard said. "Offensive wise, it is a little harder. Our defense is excellent. We have changed the defense up from last year, pass coverage and things like that. It's difficult but one more week and I think we will have it."
  "I hope I can lead this team this year and do my best at it," he said. "If anybody needs help, I hope I can help them out and everything."
  King is anxious to hit the field later this week after sitting at No. 2 quarterback for the past few seasons.
  "I have been waiting a while," King said. "It is a lot more responsibility as starting quarterback instead of back up. We are just going to have to work a lot harder. I will have to suck it up and make everyone work harder since I'm a senior and I have that leadership."
  The team will have their season opener at Hampton on Aug. 20 in what may be the most anticipated game of the season.
  "I think it will be a real close game," Pritchard said. "It will be a battle. I'd say it will be within a touchdown. Hampton is loaded this year, more so than they have ever been. Hampton is going to be tough this year. Their backs are big. It is going to be hard to stop them."
  "We are going to have work a lot harder than they do," King said. "We will have to work hard and try our best. It will be close."
  They will then go to Sullivan East and Rye Cove before a week off, and then will host North Greene at Roan Mountain.
  "The first four games are the toughest on the schedule," Keith said. "I don't think we have any easy games. We can be fairly decent and lose three of those first four games."
  But losing is something the Highlanders haven't had to get used to. Although it is expected that Cloudland will not have a shut out season as in years past, with a fresh coaching staff and strong senior leadership, they will still be the same tough contenders on the field.