Bulldogs will try to solve 'Landers

  By Jamie Combs
  SPORTS EDITOR
  jcombs@starhq.com
  For the Hampton Bulldogs the last few seasons, the name Cloudland has been associated with mental anguish the way the name Hallmark is associated with the best greeting cards.
  Dating back to the 1998 campaign, the Highlanders have beaten the 'Dogs 10 consecutive times, a streak Hampton would naturally love to end in a season-opening contest this Friday night at J.C. Campbell Stadium.
  But then again, no extra incentives are needed when these two teams get together.
  "Cloudland's Cloudland," said Bulldog coach J.C. Campbell. "When Cloudland's playing Hampton and Hampton's playing Cloudland, their people up there and our people down here, it doesn't matter. We always like to play. We always like bragging rights -- we just haven't gotten them lately."
  Gary Keith, set to make his coaching debut with the 'Landers, also described this county rivalry in simple terms.
  "When Cloudland and Hampton play, it doesn't matter," said Keith, Cloudland's top man after paying his dues for many years as a Highlander assistant. "Even if they beat us 25-0 or we beat them 25-0, it's a fight. It's clean and hard-hitting. Everybody wants to win and everybody's out there fighting, but when the game is over, we shake hands and go to the house."
  While the attitudes never change, the balance of power in the rivalry sometimes does. It may be changing this year, as Hampton, for the first time since its last victory in the series (20-15 in 1997), will take the field as the favorite instead of the underdog.
  A 57-6 club over the last five seasons, the 'Landers are seeing their run as a dominant power apparently come to an end.
  "Everybody talks about Cloudland being down -- sure Cloudland's down," Campbell said. "But now there's different stages of down. From what Cloudland's used to, they're going to be down. From what we're used to and what they're used to, there's a lot of steps in between. They can be down and still have a heck of a good ball club."
  Still, with Cloudland graduation claiming noted Bulldog tormentors such as all-purpose phenom Mark Byrd, tailback Dakota Benfield and linebacker Dane Christman, Hampton would seem to have a better chance of breaking the Highlander spell.
  There are also team factors to consider.
  "They're going to be bigger than us, stronger than us and probably quicker than us," Keith said of the 'Dogs.
  While it was evident that the talent level would be taking a drop at Cloudland this year, Keith saw enough from his team in spring practice to feel optimistic about the 2004 season. However, a combination of injuries, sickness and players quitting has led the coach to frustration.
  "We're a mediocre football team, at best," Keith said. "We're going to come out there and fight with everything we've got. I don't know if we can stay on the field with Hampton. Right now we're down to about eight linemen, maybe nine, total. But I'm not making excuses. We're going to go down there and do the best we can with the players we've got."
  Campbell, for one, would be surprised if Cloudland didn't give Hampton its best shot.
  "We've played Cloudland all the years I've been here," said Campbell, who heads into his 42nd season on the Hampton staff (37 years as coach, five years as an assistant). "I don't ever remember playing a Cloudland team that wouldn't hit you. I don't ever remember playing a Cloudland team that wouldn't hustle."
  Keith will be looking for some blocking to go along with that hitting and hustle. A shoulder injury to junior Jon Webb, knocking him out of the lineup, leaves the 'Landers' interior offensive line totally untested.
  "These younger linemen have got to step up and block," Keith said. "It doesn't matter who you've got in the backfield -- you've got to have somebody who can at least block a little."
  If the 'Landers are able to open some holes, they've got two running backs, Jonah Horney and Cody Jones, with the potential to do some damage.
  "They scrimmaged Sullivan North the other night," Campbell said of the 'Landers. "They were playing 12-minute quarters. Cloudland took the ball and went down the field and scored, and took 10 minutes off the clock. That's the way we like to play. We don't like to play people that do that to us."
  New quarterback Toby King is also a key man in the Cloudland offense, with Jon Pritchard groomed to be a defensive leader at linebacker.
  Gunning for their first season-opening win since beating Johnson County in 1997 -- the last year Cloudland started with a loss -- the 'Dogs will turn to speedy running backs/receivers Jacob Moss and Cody Walsh, and quarterback Zack Crabtree to ignite their offense.
  Like Cloudland, Hampton's interior offensive line isn't without untested people, but Seth Clawson and Johnny Price are experienced performers. Clawson and Price head the Bulldog defense, also working up front on that side of the ball.
  Kickoff is set for 7:30.