'Landers romp to conference championship

By Travis Brown
STAR Staff

   Make a little more room in an already crowded trophy case.
   The Cloudland Highlanders sealed up the first Mountain Athletic Conference championship Friday night with an impressive 44-8 victory over the Indians of Powell Valley at Orr Field.
   The 'Landers (4-0, 7-1) are begining to hit on all cylinders as playoff time approaches, and the elements of a post-season contender continue to fall into place on Roan Mountain.
   This week the Highlanders not only showcased that patented rushing attack, but 'Lander fans got an added bonus this week, a solid dose of crippling defense.
   'Lander head coach Mike Lunsford was happy with his team's stingy defensive performance.
   "We played one of our better defensive games this year," said Lunsford. "I'm real pleased with the kids."
   The first half, for all intents and purposes, decided the issue as the 'Landers came out ready to secure their third consecutive conference title.
   After overcoming an early fumble, the Highlanders took their second drive in seven plays, covering 50 yards, before Dakota Benfield punched it in from two yards out. He then added the two-point conversion to give Cloudland an early 8-0 lead.
   After allowing one first down the 'Lander defense struck, with Jonathan Gibbs picking off Arron Fox's pass and taking it 35 yards to the house. Mark Barnett would add the two points and Cloudland began to run away with the game, leading 16-0.
   For the remainder of the first half, the Indians (3-1, 5-3) could only manage one first down, and that was due to a Highlander penalty. In the second quarter, while Powell Valley was looking for answers, Cloudland continued to roll.
   On second down from the 23 yard line, Mark Byrd rolled to his left and did not stop until paydirt. His touchdown effort was followed by a two-point conversion pass to Odom, as Cloudland went up 24-0.
   At halftime, although only a three-touchdown affair, the momentum definitely sided with the 'Landers. Taking advantage of this, Lunsford was looking to improve in the second half and polish up the Cloudland passing attack.
   However, there are still some facets of the 'Lander offense that need to see improvement before postseason -- mostly dealing with catching the football.
   Cole Gouge was the victim of more than one dropped pass, one of which resulted in a tip-ball interception early in the second quarter, but despite minor blemishes the 'Lander offense was far from sputtering.
   Turning it down a notch in the second half, Cloudland remained solid, continuing to run the ball effectively. Byrd enjoyed success on the short passing game as well in the second half, going 3-of-4 in the final two quarters.
   Cloudland's first touchdown of the second half was once again due to some solid defensive work. After a fumble caused by Dane Christman was recovered by Keith Buchanan, the 'Landers set up shop at the Indian 36 yard line.
   Four plays later Barnett took it in from one yard out, Byrd added the two-point conversion and Cloudland sealed up the win 32-0. Byrd would add another touchdown, and Dustin Sluder scored on a 35-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter to pad the lead.
   After receiving an ice water bath from a couple of opportunistic players, a nicely-chilled Lunsford offered up some food for though after the game.
   "Physically we played well, mentally we made some mistakes," said Lunsford. "Overall we did a good job."
   Despite the strongpoints, Lunsford is still looking for improvement from his squad.
   "We have to catch passes and be a better all-around football team," said Lunsford. "We must remain a physical team, but we can improve on some things."
   Next week the 'Landers will host the Hampton Bulldogs in the second installment of the East Carter County Bowl. Bragging rights will be on the line in the rematch of an early-season 36-14 Highlander victory.