Jr. Rangers step to win over HV

Photo by Dave Boyd
Unakaƕs Eric McNeal (7) give chase to Garrett Dykes of Happy Valley.

By Wes Holtsclaw
Going into Tuesday night's contest against Happy Valley, the Unaka Junior Rangers were the attention of a lot of questions in the Little Watauga Conference.
Is this team still legit? The team proved so with 135 yards rushing from Jeff Wilson to feed the offense, but it was the defense that kept their momentum going for a 22-0 shutout over an improved Happy Valley team.
Wilson broke loose on two long scores in the first half and set up a score in the third quarter, but Happy Valley's defense showed a lot of heart and fight after losing 50-0 in an earlier meeting between the two teams.
"My kids might surprise some people with the year they're having, but they didn't surprise their coach," said Unaka head coach Matt Wilson. "They're playing hard and Happy Valley played a great game. Coach Payne and his staff made good adjustments and you could tell it was a better game. We've just got to get ready for Cloudland Thursday."
The Junior Warriors had to turn to the air offensively behind quarterback Tyler Blevins after Unaka shut down their rushing attack of Jesse Richardson and Jordan Oliver.
They got close, but could never muster the big play needed to break the pylons.
"First of all, I'd like to say I'm proud of our kids," said Happy Valley head coach Alex Payne. "Given the way Unaka manhandled us last time, I don't think we gave a bad account for ourselves. They've got a great team and that's pretty obvious watching them play, a great team and a great player (Wilson).
"We don't want to brag about a loss, but on the other hand our kids kept their heads up and executed," he said. "They improved a whole lot. If we're improving fundamentally as the season goes on, I think that's what we need to be concerned with."
Unaka opened with an onside kick and recovered it, but was forced away on downs. However, a Happy Valley fumble was scooped up by Unaka's Mickey Campbell, which set up a 48-yard scamper from Wilson to give the Jr. Rangers a 6-0 lead in the first quarter.
The Jr. Warriors tried a little bit of everything on their next drive, only this time an interception was returned 20 yards to set up Wilson.
Wilson took a 49-yard run down the sidelines, but it was called back on holding. Dustin Carden broke a 30-yard run to set up a 17-yard trip to paydirt from Wilson, with a conversion putting Unaka up 14-0.
Happy Valley fought its way towards the end zone with some pass grabs by Oliver, Caleb Johnson and Anthony Hollifield. An 11-yard grab fell just short of paydirt going into the second half.
Unaka opened the third quarter with two five-yard runs from Wilson, as well as a 17-yarder and a 20-yarder to allow Carden to bust away with a two-yard score, making it 22-0.
It was much harder for the Jr. Rangers from that point on as Blake DeVault and Jesse Richardson spearheaded a solid defensive attack. However, Unaka's defense was just as solid, evidenced by Eric McNeal, Nick Papantoniou, Travis Dykes and a Jake Estep interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.
"They made great adjustments the whole game, you tip your hat to them," Coach Wilson added. "But I tip my hat to our defensive coach, Jason Hartley. His defense hasn't allowed anything all year. Defense won this one."
Blevins had 50 yards throwing for the Warriors, leading their offensive pace. According to Payne, it was a much better showing from an improved club.
"My coaching staff is doing a great job: Coach Hilton, Coach Jarrett and Coach Wandell," said Payne. "I think we're seeing improvement and that's something to build on. There's no way I'm going to tell our kids they did a bad job tonight."