'Dogs, Buffaloes prime for Watauga showdown

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   Jim Sauceman Field is set to host the kind of feeding frenzy usually brought on by a wounded sea creature in shark-infested waters.
   With Hampton (2-0, 6-1) and West Greene (2-1, 6-1) getting together for a late-season Watauga Conference showdown this Friday night in Mosheim, the Bulldogs and Buffaloes will be feeding from a strong dose of motivation.
   "This is what you build up to," said Bulldog head coach J.C. Campbell, referring to the fact his team can sew up the league's No. 1 playoff seed and a share of the conference title by beating the Buffaloes. "Hopefully, we can continue to play fairly well."
   Both teams are already guaranteed a playoff berth, with the Buffaloes heading to the playoffs for just the second time in their football history.
   West Greene has the chance to climb to higher ground, though. Having never won or shared a conference championship, the Buffaloes can grab a piece of the Watauga title by defeating the more tradition-rich 'Dogs.
   "They're good, no doubt about it," West Greene head coach Barry Carter said of the 'Dogs. "Their record proves it. They've beat some good teams along the way. We know we've got our hands full, but we are looking forward to the challenge."
   This didn't exactly look like a premier matchup before the season started. Hampton was picked by many to be a conference heavyweight, while West Greene, coming off a 2-8 record and last-place Watauga finish in 2001, figured to be fighting to simply escape the league cellar.
   The 'Dogs have so far lived up to expectations, but the Buffaloes, whose only other playoff berth came in 1994 -- the same year they last defeated Hampton -- have really turned their fortunes around.
   "The surprise team of the year," said Campbell, giving his take on West Greene. "They certainly are. Who would have figured? Barry Carter apparently has done a good job with them. I'm happy for him. He's worked as hard as anybody else. He's not had good athletes, and now he's got some."
   Putting together its first winning season in 20 years (5-4 in 1982), West Greene appears to have its best team since going 9-2 back in 1981.
   "This year I think we're winning some football games that in the past we had the chance to win but didn't win," Carter said.
   Carter was asked if there's one particular thing that has given his team the ability to suddenly get the job done.
   "People have asked me that several times, and looking back on it I think it's the culmination of a lot of hard work," he said. "It started about four years ago with a lot of fussing and prodding to get people in the weight room -- that had a lot to do with it.
   "There's also a lot of experience on this team, and a lot of the kids beginning to believe in themselves a little bit."
   Hampton players let it be known during the preseason that becoming the conference champions was clearly their goal, but Campbell understands that a loss to West Greene would really spoil those plans.
   "If we get beat, you'd have a quagmire," he said. "We'd be just like the rest of the teams in the conference, about middle of the pack. All of us would be about the same."
   The most compelling matchup of the game pits the Watauga's No. 1 scoring offense (Hampton, 28.4 ppg.) against the league's No. 1 defense in points allowed (West Greene, 9.4 ppg.).
   According to Campbell, getting a good night from quarterback Mitchell Morton with the passing game is important.
   "Sometimes we'll overthrow one a couple of times and that puts you in a running mode," said the veteran coach. "When Mitchell's throwing the ball well, we can score. If he's not throwing it well, it's going to put things mostly back on Michael (Peterson), and that would be tougher."
   Morton is having a fine season, ranking second in the Watauga in passing with 552 yards. He's completed 34 of 65 attempts, tossed eight touchdowns and has thrown just two interceptions.
   Eric Swain (14 receptions, 244 yards, 4 TDs) is the second-leading pass-catcher in the conference, and Peterson, Kevin Harrison, Josh Nave and Corey McKinney do their part in the receiving department. West Greene sports a ball-hawking secondary keyed by Michael Franklin, who shares the conference lead in interceptions with three.
   Peterson, with 746 yards on the ground and 52 points, ranks No. 2 in rushing and No. 1 in scoring in the Watauga, and Campbell noted that this year's addition of junior tackle Brandon Bolling has really helped out the line play.
   Although not as potent on the scoreboard as Hampton, West Greene is quite capable on offense.
   Josh Dearinger, the league's leading passer with 703 yards; Franklin, whose 20 receptions (251 yards) top the Watauga; and freshman Bryan Sauceman (third-leading Watauga rusher with 408 yards, 6 TDs) have consistently kept the Buffaloes on the move. Frankie Ottinger has made 11 receptions for 176 yards for West Greene, and the team's offensive line is a steady force.
   With Harrison, McKinney and Morton in the Bulldog secondary, Hampton combats Dearinger's arm with quality pass-defenders. However, it's the signal-caller's running ability that worries Campbell.
   "We feel pretty good about our defensive backs," Campbell said. "Kevin Harrison's hard to throw on, Mitchell's hard to throw on. Corey's not as fast, but he's around the ball. If we continue playing pretty good pass defense, that will free us up with our linebackers and help our rush a little bit better.
   "What concerns me more than anything, I guess, is in the past at times we've not dealt real well with running quarterbacks. (Dearinger) runs it pretty well. He'll drop back, then take off on you."
   Pat Murphey and fast-improving Donny Singleton, a pair of standup defensive ends, will try to keep the heat on Dearinger when he decides to throw. Giving up 14.9 points per game, Hampton throws the Watauga's second-rated scoring defense at the Buffaloes.
   Even though West Greene could easily be satisfied with its accomplishments this year, Carter thinks his team is ready to take its best shot.
   "This is a team with a great attitude," he said. "Maybe early in the year they may have been satisfied with winning this game or that game, but this team has goals they're trying to work for. To keep reaching those goals, we have to play with a certain fire and enthusiasm and emotion. This team right now is confident. They're not arrogant, but they're playing with a lot of confidence."
   Game time is at 7:30.