'Landers spill 'Dogs

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR

   No, Kenny Loggins didn't show up at Orr Field and perform his former hit single "Footloose," but the Cloudland Highlanders were definitely off and running during Friday night's game with the Hampton Bulldogs.
   Manufacturing a 368-yard effort on the ground, the 'Landers made their regular-season home finale a good one, cruising to a 40-12 victory over the 'Dogs.
   "I thought everybody played real well, prepared well, executed well and did a good job of setting the plays up," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford, his team improving its record to 8-1. "Mark Barnett ran the ball real hard between the tackles and set up our outside game. I thought he did an outstanding job."
   The hard-nosed running of Barnett, working from his fullback position, paved the way to two early touchdowns -- and Cloudland never looked back.
   "Our team came out and just tried to do to the best of our abilities," said Barnett, who finished with 90 yards on 18 carries, and added 11 tackles at linebacker. "We worked real hard for this game. (Mark) Byrd did a good job on the fakes and Dakota Benfield did a heck of a job. The whole line did a tremendous job.
   "I'd just like to thank all the coaches and my dad for being right behind me, but there's still room for improvement."
   Benfield ran 15 times for 134 yards, Derrick Birchfield gained 74 yards on 12 carries and Byrd chipped in 11 carries for 63 yards behind a strong offensive line anchored by seniors Jon Townson and John Hicks.
   "That was just a good-old thrashing," said Hampton coach J.C. Campbell. "They were too strong. They blocked the crap out of us."
   While the 'Dogs (5-4) had no luck getting their own ground game on track (30 rushes, 54 yards), Cloudland's first two possessions saw the 'Landers execute 25 plays (all runs), completing 71 and 69-yard scoring drives. Byrd did the first honor with a 6-yard TD run.
   "Of course you don't want them to score (first), but a lot of times your team will come back and play well," Campbell said. "That just got them steamrolling."
   Birchfield followed with a 5-yard dash to the end zone.
   Barnett put Cloudland in position for those scores with 57 rushing yards.
   "You can run dives on a 5-3 (defense) that they ran," Barnett said. "We kept on running dives and dives and dives, then we'd fake it to me and Byrd would go around the end."
   With Byrd flicking conversion passes to Birchfield and Brandon Odom, Cloudland was in good shape with a 16-0 second-quarter lead.
   The lead wasn't comfortable, though, until the 'Landers struck for two scores in a span of three plays just before halftime. Benfield busted loose for a 62-yard TD jaunt, then one play after Hampton fumbled away the ball, a scrambling Byrd lofted a 24-yard scoring toss to his big-play receiver, Jonathan Gibbs.
   A Byrd-to-Benfield conversion made it 30-0 at the half.
   "We played a good football team," Campbell said. "I think we'll come back and play well. Sometimes the competition makes you look bad when you're playing as hard as you can."
   Not acting like a team down by 30 points, the 'Dogs brought some fire and emotion back from the locker room at the start of the second half.
   Taking the ball first, Hampton marched 65 yards to the end zone on 13 plays -- with Mitchell Morton scoring on a 1-yard quarterback sneak. Morton was initially stopped on the play, but a nice second effort pushed him across the goal line.
   "We just came out in the second half and didn't let down," Morton said. "I'm proud of us for just staying in there. We didn't quit -- our boys are good for that. Next week I'm hoping we'll play four quarters of ball."
   Cloudland recorded a safety when Morton, setting up to punt, stepped on the back line of the end zone. The 'Landers added more points with 8:28 to go in the contest as Birchfield ran six yards to paydirt, then Dane Christman bulled across for the two.
   "I don't remember too many plays in which the first player took down our runner," said Lunsford. "We were a little bigger and a little stronger. I thought it was a total team effort. It wasn't just one or two people."
   Hampton's Michael Peterson answered Cloudland's final touchdown by returning the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a score.
   Christman totaled 11 tackles and a quarterback sack to help pace the 'Landers defensively. Byrd added nine hits, followed by Keith Buchanan and Odom with seven apiece.
   The 'Landers end the regular season at Unaka this Thursday before loading up for a possible playoff run.
   "We want to stay at the level we're playing at," Lunsford said.
   Morton had a fine all-around outing for the 'Dogs, completing 8-of-11 passes for 119 yards while collecting nine tackles.
   He and the 'Dogs must now prepare for a key Watauga Conference clash this Thursday as they host Chuckey-Doak.
   "We'll shake this (loss) off and turn our attention and focus on Chuckey-Doak," Morton said. "If we can beat them, we'll have homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That's the main thing on our minds right now."
   Peterson gave Hampton 229 all-purpose yards, and Mel Ramey (1 sack), Jimmy Sarrett, Jason Humphrey and Josh Nave contributed 11 tackles apiece to the Bulldog cause. Adam Pierson added 10 stops.
   Notes: The second half saw tempers flare on both sides, resulting in extracurricular activity -- on and off the field -- and three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The two teams left the field without the customary postgame handshakes or prayer.
   "Emotions maybe got the best of both teams, but it was just two good football teams battling hard," Lunsford said. "Sometimes it's a tough sport."