Key conference encounter pits 'Horns, Devils

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com
With two teams that have 2-1 records, the tangle set for this Friday night between Johnson County and Unicoi County should be a sticky one.
The Blue Devils, having lost their first game of the season to Happy Valley, are now coming into the match with Johnson County with a two-game winning streak under their belt.
The Longhorns, with a mirror record in opposite order, won their first two games of the season, and lost last Friday's contest against Hampton by one point.
Furthermore, both clubs are part of a four-way tie for first place in the Mountain Lakes Conference.
Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood said that the Longhorns' first loss of the season didn't affect the team's attitude or expectations.
"We've had a letdown against Hampton, but I think our guys are ready to play," he said. "It didn't hurt our confidence any. Hampton played harder. They deserved to win; they just wanted the win more."
A team that relies heavily on strong defensive players like Adam Johnson, Daniel Cranford and Jeremy Gerace, the Longhorns have been fine-tuning their already tough defense since the loss against Hampton.
"We just need to stop the offense, and we need to get the defense focused," Atwood said. "We're going to have to play well. It's hard to play at Erwin. They're the same we are - they're 2 and 1."
On the offensive side, Johnson County's team is a menace on the ground. With 456 rushing yards in three games, compared to only 172 passing yards, they tend to power their way to victory. In the season opener against West Greene, the Longhorns collected a whopping 232 rushing yards and scored 38 points.
Sophomore quarterback Jeffrey Brinker rose to the occasion in his second start for Johnson County, against Sullivan Central, rushing for the first touchdown in the second quarter, tying the score, and then proving that he can perform well under pressure by running the ball into the end zone for an overtime win of 13-7.
Ernie Hodge, the 5'6", 149-pound sophomore running back for the Longhorns, has already emptied a couple tricks from his sleeve, and is expected to throw a few more surprises his opponent's way.
"We feel like Ernie is going to be a difference player. We hope he's going to make some big plays," Atwood said.
Hodge recovered a Sullivan Central fumble to turn the game to Johnson County's advantage in overtime, and left everyone in the dust as he raced to make a tackle on a 58-yard breakaway run by Hampton's Jacob Moss last Friday night.
Players to look out for on Unicoi County's team are quarterback Hunter Sparks, a junior with an arm to be wary of, and Cory Schwenke, a running back boasting the most yards carried for the Blue Devils this season. Schwenke made nine carries for 73 yards last week for Unicoi County against Chuckey-Doak.
Sparks completed four of six passes last week against the Black Knights, including two passes to tight-end Dustin Tolley for 24 and 32 yards, and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Evely.
In Unicoi County's win over Sullivan East, Sparks made a 3-yard touchdown run with only six minutes left in the game, almost bringing down Sullivan East's 7-point lead by giving the Devils 19 against 20, and then made the 2-point conversion that won the game.
Kicker Emanuel Mendoza will also be a key player for the Devils this Friday. Mendoza made a 42-yard field goal kick against Happy Valley, and another 23-yard field goal in last week's game.
"We're pretty much better on defense and special teams than we have been the last couple years," Unicoi County's head coach Larry Howell said.
Both teams are aware that the competition will be tough.
"We'll have to play probably the best game ever," Coach Howell said. "They're a good team. They play really tough defensively and they try to play ball control on offense."
The Longhorns are ready to redeem themselves after the Hampton loss. Atwood feels that the team, with renewed determination, is ready to add another game on the winning side of their record.
"If we don't play well, we're going to have a tough time, but I think we're ready," he said. "We have a few that are sick, none are injured, but a few haven't been able to make it to practice. Whatever they put out, we're going to be ready."