Unaka-Hampton series set to break off after Friday's game

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   Unaka is breaking off its relationship with Hampton on the football field, and it's a subject area that seems to be more sensitive than an infected tooth and ingrown toenail rolled into one.
   The two schools have met every year since Unaka fielded its first team in 1948, but the series will end at least temporarily after the Rangers (1-5) battle the Bulldogs (5-1) this Friday night at J.C. Campbell Stadium.
   "I think it's a shame," said Hampton head coach J.C. Campbell. "We've played all these years. There have been years that we've dominated for a period of time, but there was also a period back there where they won quite a few in a row. They act like they're planning on their program always being down and not moving up any."
   When Class 1-A Unaka recently scheduled strictly 1-A opponents for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, it left the 2-A 'Dogs searching for a new team to play and sparked quite a bit of controversy within the Hampton and Unaka communities.
   It was a move that Rangers head coach Mike Ensor felt best for the future of Unaka's program, which has dropped 16 of its last 17 meetings with Hampton and last produced a winning season in 1991.
   "It's not a matter of just dropping Hampton," he said. "We're to the point in our program where we either have to turn the program around or drop it. We felt like the only way to turn our program around is to generate some interest, and it's a double-edge sword. You have to get kids out to be successful, and you've got to be successful to get kids out.
   "We've got to try and get competitive, and we've got to get our program up a little bit before we start trying to play Hampton and Happy Valley and those people again."
   With that said, there's an obvious difference in philosophy between the two head coaches. Campbell doesn't see how not retaining a couple of higher division schools will allow the Rangers to lay a strong foundation.
   "I don't know how you can get any better," said Campbell, who replaced Unaka with Knox Catholic on the Bulldog schedule.
   Ensor reasoned that unlike higher-class schools, Unaka doesn't have the luxury of dipping from a lower class to help fill its schedule.
   "The best we can hope for is to schedule even, because for the most part even good single-A schools can't beat decent or good double-A schools," he said. "They just wear you down."
   Although this debate is sure to linger, there's still a football game to be played on Friday night.
   Celebrating homecoming, the 'Dogs will be heavy favorites against a Unaka team fresh from its first victory of the year (34-12 over Cosby).
   "Unaka won them a game the other night, and they've been playing pretty tough," Campbell said. "It's a Carter County rivalry, so they'll play harder against us, I'm sure. They seem to be moving the ball pretty well now. It seems like (the coaches) are doing a good job with them."
   The Rangers are led on offense by hard-charging fullback Joey Parlier, as well as tailback Brandon Irick and quarterback Jeremy Cook.
   An emerging offensive standout for Unaka is freshman all-purpose player Charles Guinn, who is small but has quickness and speed.
   "We've been real selective about playing him," Ensor said. "We haven't thrown him in there against the big teams and gotten him beat to death, and even against teams that are our own size we're still selective of where we let him handle the ball. We don't want to run him a whole lot between the tackles. We don't want to take somebody who has a chance to be something special and get him gun-shy."
   Brent Huskins, Andrew Richardson, Cody Hurley and Tory Morton are other key players for Unaka, which will try to slow down a potent Hampton offense paced by quarterback Mitchell Morton, receiver Eric Swain and tailback Michael Peterson.
   Linebackers Jimmy Sarrett and Josh Nave, as well as defensive linemen Robby England and Adam Potter, lead a Bulldog defense that has flourished most of the season.
   Asked if he thinks his team is where it needs to be at this point of the season, Campbell said: "In some ways. But you look at the film and see things you know that we can do better, things we should be better at than what we're doing. We've tried to work on some of those things these two weeks. Hopefully we'll see a little fruit of that labor."
   The 'Dogs were open last week, giving them time to heal a few injuries. However, Zack Crabtree suffered a season-ending injury (torn ACL) during a junior varsity contest at Unicoi County, and Pat Murphey and Nave have missed practice time this week due to illness.
   Regardless of the situation, Ensor feels like the Rangers will have to be at their very best to stay on the porch with the 'Dogs.
   "In order for us to be competitive and make it a good ballgame, we've got to play near-perfect football and get a break or two from Hampton," he said.
   Ensor takes his squad into this clash at least knowing it has improved on a weekly basis.
   "One goal we set before this year was to improve weekly and be more competitive," Ensor said. "I feel like right now we're a much-better team than we were week one. We were pretty bad week one, but we're much-improved."
   Action kicks off at 7:30.