Highlanders avenge loss to Cherokee

By Travis Brown
STAR STAFF
tbrown@starhq.com

   Payback is indeed the sweetest feeling, and the Cloudland Highlanders are feeling it indeed, as Friday the 'Landers avenged their only regular-season loss from a year ago by defeating the Cherokee Chiefs 35-14.
   In an impressive performance by the entire team, big players made big plays and the biggest of all was undeniably Mark Byrd.
   The junior all-purpose man racked up 188 all-purpose yards in the first half, and finished the game with over 300 total yards of offense.
   To the unpolished football fan, it appeared as if Byrd was a one-man show, but the 'Landers exemplified team football as the blocking assignments and defensive responsibilities were carried out to the letter, resulting in the one-sided matchup.
   Despite being ejected for arguing a call, Cloudland skipper Mike Lunsford was ecstatic about the win.
   "These kids realized it was time to step up," said Lunsford. "They all played super and because of it we are a much better football team than we were a year ago."
   Although the final score was a lopsided one, the first half made for some good competitive football.
   With a surprise coaching move Byrd was moved to tailback for the first play of the game and it paid off big. His run around the right side for 35 yards established the tempo and eventually led to a touchdown.
   Dakota Benfield took it five yards over the left side, and with 10:27 left in the first period the 'Landers were on top 6-0.
   Cherokee would strike back, however. Cloudland's second drive of the game resulted in a fumble, and the Chiefs wasted no time taking it to the house.
   It took them two plays before running back Chris West took a pitch over the left side and rumbled 45 yards for the equalizer. Matt Ringley's extra point gave Cherokee the narrow 1-point lead at the end of the first stanza.
   Early in the second quarter the 'Landers would re-establish the lead, thanks to a strong first down run by Benfield, the drive was kept alive and Byrd took it home from 11 yards out to swing the momentum back to Cloudland.
   Cherokee would miss out on a sure touchdown on the next drive, as Adam Coffey fell down while looking for the ball. The resulting incompletion turned the ball back to Cloudland.
   After Cloudland had some passing problems of their own, the Chiefs would take the lead going into halfime on a truly phenomenal play.
   Junior Anthony Sensabaugh made a one-handed grab in great coverage, and scampered 83 yards for the go-ahead score. Ringley would add the pat taking a 14-12 lead to the locker room.
   The second half was all 'Landers, as they were pumped up due to Lunsford's ejection early in the third quarter. The surge came from the defensive side of the ball, stopping the Chiefs in the second half for virtually no offensive production.
   Highlander fullback/middle linebacker Mark Barnett felt as if Lunsford's exit fired up the Cloudland team.
   "The turning point of the ball game was when they ejected Lunsford," said Barnett. "When we got that 30-yard penalty we stepped it up."
   Meanwhile the Highlanders were hitting all cylinders and just at the right time, too. Byrd took a 43-yard carry down the sideline to ignite the offense and Derrick Birchfield answered later in the period with a 4-yard touchdown. Benfield added the conversion attempt, and the lead would not again be relinquished.
   Fourth quarter scores from Benfield, and Byrd would seal the deal and put the contest away combined with an interception from Dane Christman. Both sides of the football looked quite impressive throughout the second half.
   Afterwards Byrd was excited to get the "W."
   "It feels good to win here, since they beat us last year," said Byrd. "Especially at their house.
   Christman would later add some insight as to what ingredients helped the 'Landers dominate the second half.
   "Mental toughness and motivation from the fans helped us out," said Christman, "and the D-line done an unbelievable job."
   With the biggest hurdle so far this season easily cleared, the Highlanders are looking to continue the success and ride this pony all the way back to Murfreesboro.
   Lunsford would comment on what is to come.
   "A championship football team has to improve every week," he said. "We're better than we were last year, but we must keep improving."