Senior quartet trigger-piece to Johnson County defense

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- When it comes to football, Johnson County seniors Wes Hamby, Tolby Lowe, Matt Eggers and Jesse Cranford get very defensive.
   These four guys have propelled the Johnson County defense to a stellar season. The Longhorns have held their opponents to two touchdowns or less in five of seven games so far this year.
   Hamby is leading the Longhorns in tackles with 69 as a linebacker. He showed what he was made of a few weeks ago against Daniel Boone, netting 10 tackles in the victory.
   "When it came time for Daniel Boone to come down, the coaches told us that we've got to have this game to go to the playoffs," Hamby said. "This is my senior season and I want to go to the playoffs. It was my last homecoming, and I just got fired up off that."
   The Longhorn offense has not produced a lot of points this year, meaning it's been up to the defense to win games. Hamby understands that as he and his teammates have stepped to the fore.
   "Our defense has definitely been what's kept us in these close games because lately we've not gotten that many points on the board on offense," Hamby said. Our defense has kept us in the game the whole way just about every game we've had."
   The Longhorns did have one game where they didn't play well on defense, and that was against Happy Valley. The Warriors slaughtered Johnson County 35-0 in week five.
   But the Longhorn defense has played great since, and now they're looking to reach uncharted waters. Johnson County is 4-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big Eight Conference heading into Friday night's showdown with Elizabethton. Wins over the Cyclones, Tennessee High and Sullivan South will give the Longhorns a conference championship.
   "That's what we're looking forward to mostly is winning the conference title," Hamby said. "We're going to change all the doubters minds, and we're going to go down there and kill Elizabethton. Then we're going to roll over Tennessee High. We're going to get the conference title this year."
   Defensive tackle Tolby Lowe, who has netted 63 tackles so far this season, also has high aspirations for the Elizabethton game.
   "We're looking for a shutout this week," Lowe said.
   Lowe wants the defense to pressure the quarterback in this big contest. He believes the Longhorns will do fine if they can accomplish that.
   "Our defensive ends will be going after him the whole time," Lowe said. "That's how it's going to be all night long. He's going to have to run around a little bit."
   The Cyclones also might want to be ready to take a lick Friday night, as the strength of the Longhorn defense is that they hit very hard.
   "We hit harder than anybody else," Lowe said. "I don't believe anybody hits as hard as we do."
   Lowe believes the success of the defense is mainly due to increased dedication in the weight room. Ever since their loss to Austin-East in the playoffs last season, the Longhorns have been busy lifting weights.
   "We've been in the weight room all summer and all winter," Lowe said. " We've been in there from two weeks after last year ended until now. We haven't stopped yet. We're still in the weight room."
   Linebacker Matt Eggers has also had a phenomenal year. He has 67 tackles so far in 2001.
   Eggers agreed with Lowe about the hitting being the strength of the defense.
   "We hit pretty good on defense," Eggers said. "The line holds them good, and the linebackers do their job pretty good."
   Eggers does believe the defense has definitely won some games for the Longhorns this season.
   "It has been on the defense to help win some games," Eggers said. It's helped us to win quite a few."
   Like his fellow defensive standouts, Eggers is looking forward to possibly making the playoffs and winning the conference title.
   "We want to go to the playoffs, and we want to win the conference, too," Eggers said. "
   Defensive end Jesse Cranford is one of the better athletes on this Longhorn team. He has 59 tackles this season.
   Cranford usually has knack for getting to the quarterback. It's something Cranford tries to accomplish each game.
   "That's why I started my sophomore year," Cranford said. "I started chasing him down. It's not that I'm strong or a really big player, it's just that I try hard and try to get there.
   The Longhorns had to replace some key guys from last season's defense, but Cranford and the rest of the Longhorns have come through for Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood.
   "I think it's been a great year for our defense," Cranford said. "Especially since last year we had a bunch of big and really athletic guys. This year we're not as big or as fast or anything, but we've stepped it up pretty good and done just as well as they did."
   Cranford is also up to the challenge of facing Elizabethton. It's something he has looked forward to doing for a long time.
   "I've wanted to play Elizabethton and Tennessee High ever since I was in middle school," Cranford said. "We just never got the chance. I want to look to the future, and be able to go back and think that I beat one of the top teams."
   With these four seniors on the field, Johnson County is always a threat to win. And during the next three weeks, they will have every opportunity to prove that the Longhorn defense is for real.