'Horns to rely on defense to counteract Rebel speed

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF

   MOUNTAIN CITY-- If local high school football supporters thought Sullivan South and Johnson County were going to be near the bottom of the Big Eight Conference this season, they probably weren't fans of pop singer Richard Marx.
   They should've known better.
   The two so-called surprise teams of the Big Eight will face each other at Paul H. McEwen stadium Thursday night as the Longhorns will host the Rebels in the regular season finale for both teams.
   Sullivan South came into this season picked to finish fifth in the Big Eight, but are currently sitting at 6-3 overall, and 5-1 in conference play. The Rebels have already locked up the No. 2 seed from Region 1-4A in the upcoming TSSAA playoffs.
   Coming into this season, the Rebels had won four games in seven years, so Sullivan South head coach Pat Fraley is pleased that the boys from Colonial Heights are back on the football map.
   "We have a chance to win more games this year than we have the last four combined," Fraley said. "The kids believed in the system and they listened to us. They've gotten us back where we need to be."
   Despite losing its last two games, this season has been a success for the smallest school in Class 4A. Johnson County fell to 4-5 following its 42-0 loss to Tennessee High, but the Longhorns are 3-3 in conference play and are still in the hunt for a playoff spot after being picked as low as dead last in some preseason polls.
   "It wasn't as big of a surprise to us," Fraley said about Johnson
   County's successful first year in the Big Eight. "They hit you in the mouth pretty good. They've done a good job."
   The Longhorns can make the playoffs if they defeat the Rebels Thursday night, or if the heavily favored Elizabethton Cyclones knock off Unicoi County at Dave Rider Field.
   Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood wants his team to settle things themselves.
   "We would rather get in with a win," Atwood said. "We don't want to count on anybody else to win a game."
   Despite last week's tough loss to Tennessee High, Atwood believes the Longhorns will be ready to move on Thursday night.
   "We rebound pretty good from bad games," Atwood said. "We had a bad game against Happy Valley, then played good against Daniel Boone. We came back pretty strong, and I think we will again."
   If the Longhorns are going to pull off the upset, they will have to
   stop an explosive Sullivan South backfield. Last week against Sullivan East, wingback Russell Tritapoe rushed for 106 yards on only six carries, and scored four touchdowns.
   But Atwood knows Tritapoe is not the only back that can hurt teams. Aaron Robinette had 95 yards rushing on nine carries against East, while Aaron Grills rushed four times for 66 yards against the Patriots, and also tallied 80 yards receiving.
   "Tritapoe is their featured back, but if you concentrate on him the other two will kill you," Atwood said.
   South quarterback Andy Wooten has had a great season for the Rebels. The first-year starter has passed for 766 yards so far.
   "Andy's done a good job for us," Fraley said. "He doesn't get sacked. He really cares about the team."
   Said Atwood: "Wooten is tough. They're a very good offensive football team."
   Led by linebacker Josh Gott, the Rebels also bring a lot to the table defensively.
   "They're real strong defensively," Atwood said. "We're going to have a hard time moving the ball on them unless we play a real good offensive game."
   Johnson County has established a strong running game in recent weeks, but last Friday Tennessee High stopped the Longhorns all night long.
   Featured tailback Jonah Dunn was a little banged up in the game last Friday night, but should be ready to regain his strong late-season form.
   Atwood believes the running game is going to be key for the Longhorns.
   "We hope we can move the ball on the ground against Sullivan South," Atwood said. "We feel we have to if we're going to have a chance to win."
   The Johnson County defense is also going to have to step up in this contest. Players like Matt Eggers, Justin Bishop, Tolby Lowe, Jesse Cranford, Lucas Moreno and Wes Hamby have all had standout years defensively, but the Longhorns have given up 77 points in their last two games.
   "They know they've not played well," Atwood said. "They're looking for redemption. They've not given us a chance to win like they usually do. We're looking for the defense to keep us in the game."
   In addition to possibly making the playoffs, the Longhorns are also trying for an undefeated home season. Johnson County has won all four of its games in Mountain City.
   That has crossed Atwood's mind this week.
   "We have talked about it," Atwood said. "We play good here and other teams play bad. We're hoping that's going to be an advantage for us, but we'll have to wait and see."
   Making the playoffs is the primary goal right now for the Longhorns, something that would give this program a big boost.
   "That's what we're hoping for," Atwood said. "We have tried to build a good program in 2A, so to make the playoffs in 4A would be a big plus for us."