'Landers brace for improved Huskies

By Wes Holtsclaw
When the top-ranked Cloudland Highlanders make their semi-annual trip to Baileyton this Friday night, things may be a little different on the gridiron.
The North Greene Huskies are in contention to win their first-ever Watauga Valley Conference crown, and for the first time in school history, they are poised to finish in the top two and play their first-ever home playoff game.
"They are a lot better," said Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford. "This is the best North Greene team I've seen in two or three years. They've got good running backs, they run a good offense and they hit you. On defense, they put a lot of people on the ball."
"I'm not sure we have much talent, but it's a good bunch of kids and they work hard," said North Greene coach Tim Bailey. "We've got several steps to take. This is the best chance we've had (to finish at the top of the conference) up to date, and it would be a big step up for our program."
The Huskies finished 3-8 last season, falling in the first round of the playoffs to a tough Greenback team.
This year, the squad has started off 2-1 with sole possession of the top conference spot after a 24-7 victory over Unaka. The Huskies also played Happy Valley a tough game, losing 29-12, and pulled out a big 27-21 victory over Chuckey-Doak.
"They played Happy Valley tough, and we've got a lot of respect for what they've done thus far," Lunsford added. "They beat Unaka and probably should've beat them worse than they did. We're going to have to play well."
The Huskies are lad by sophomore quarterback Dusty Neal (6-1, 175), who threw for two scores against Unaka.
"Dusty's a good all-around athlete," Bailey added. "He's a sophomore, but he's fit in well. What talent he has, he uses it."
He will be joined in the backfield by tailbacks Jamie Williams (5-11, 190), who also scored twice on runs against the Rangers, Cody Parks (6-1, 185) and Dalas Lynch (5-10, 165).
North Greene is dangerous outside and will look to throw the ball against the 'Landers after setting up the run game.
Matthew Ormsbee (6-2, 185) is a solid threat at tight end, while Allen Guinn (5-10, 170) and Corey Cutshall (5-10, 155) will see a lot of balls thrown their way.
Said Bailey: "We've not thrown it as much, but we've thrown a few big interceptions and we've got to try to keep from doing that. Dusty does a remarkable job, but he hasn't seen anything like he will Friday night."
It will be a tough task defensively according to Cloudland defensive back Brandon 'Bebo' Hughes.
"We are concentrating on stopping the Power-I," said Hughes, who has recorded some solid numbers on both sides of the ball for Cloudland this year. "In the past, they have been able to pass the ball real well. We've got to improve on our pass defense because they are a lot better this year."
Both teams were off last week and Cloudland used the time off to work on fundamentals and individual things, as well as give the players some rest before a long seven-game haul including trips to Jellico, Cosby and Appalachia, Va.
"We've been working a bunch," said senior tailback Dewayne Campbell, who has contributed close to 100 yards rushing and a score to the 'Lander offense to open the season.
"We're just practicing hard and concentrating on the game," he said. "We've been working mostly on the run game, but they've got some good players we have to watch."
A big focus point for the 'Landers in this game has to be North Greene's solid run defense.
They are loaded on both sides of the ball with big athletes, including 6-foot-6, 300 pound defensive end Ray Fox and 320-pound offensive lineman Eric Collins who will match up well with Cloudland's Jake Gibbs and Chris "The Bus" Sheets.
"We've got three linemen back and some newcomers who have played real well," the Huskies coach added. "We've improved our physical conditioning; we've got us a weightroom and we're hitting it hard. Last year, we only had six and at the end of the game we were worn out."
Whatever happens Friday night, the 'Landers have already earned the respect of this North Greene team.
"Cloudland's not like anybody else we've seen, they've got so many weapons and they're a classy team," Bailey said. "It's a great opportunity getting to play the number one team in the state, because a lot of us don't get to see one. We've played them a lot of years and they always make you better."
But the 'Landers are definitely not overlooking this team for 48 minutes.
"We don't want to go down there, make mistakes and get behind," added Lunsford. "We want to play a good game and work on playing every play as good as we possibly can."
- Did you know? 'Lander quarterback Mark Byrd has scored or thrown for points in every Cloudland game he has been involved with since his freshman season.
- Dakota Benfield is on pace to record his third 1,000-yard rushing campaign. Benfield has 420 yards rushing through the first three games of the season and only needs an average of 83 yards in the final seven contests to break 1,000.
- Dane Christman has had double-digit tackling performances in each of his last eight games. The Mr. Football finalist is on pace to top the numbers he recorded during his sophomore year.
- Cloudland achieved the state's No. 1 ranking for the sixth week in the past two seasons with the release of Tuesday's AP Prep Poll. The 'Landers held the number one spot four of nine times last season and earned 11 first-place votes this week.