'Landers receive toughest test of season

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   SPEEDWELL-- It might have been just what the Cloudland football team needed.
   After blowing out teams all season long, the Highlanders received their toughest test of the season Friday night in a 44-24 victory over the Powell Valley Indians at Troy Edwards Field.
   As a matter of fact, it took a late touchdown by Dakota Benfield to make the margin as big as it was.
   With the playoffs just a few weeks away, the competition is bound to get tougher. With that being said, Benfield thinks this close game might have been what the doctor ordered.
   "I think we needed a wake-up call," Benfield said.
   The Highlanders certainly got it against a good football team.
   People had questioned whether Powell Valley was worthy of its No. 9 state ranking in Class A, but the quarterback of the No. 1 ranked Highlander squad knew at the end of the game that these Indians were for real.
   "Powell Valley has a great defense, and they have an overall great team," Mark Byrd said. "I do believe (Powell Valley is deserving of its ranking) if not higher. They've just got a great ball club."
   If the 'Landers are going to make it back to Murfreesboro, they know now what exactly they need to work on.
   One thing that will be addressed will be pass defense. The Indians tallied 248 yards through the air on Friday night.
   Byrd, who doubles as a defensive back, is a friend of Powell Valley quarterback Corey Russell, and he knew what the Indians were capable of.
   "Corey and I went to camp together down a UT, and we worked a little bit with each other," Byrd said. "We knew they had a passing attack, I think we just kind of overlooked them."
   Benfield admitted that this Powell Valley team was very hard to prepare for.
   "We knew that they had a good passing game, but we knew that they run the veer option real well, too," Benfield said. "We worked on it. We knew that (Caleb Medley and Rusty Losa) were their two big players passing the ball. We just couldn't get (Losa) stopped tonight.
   Losa finished the night with nine catches for 208 yards and scored two touchdowns.
   But to Cloudland's credit, the Highlanders continued their offensive explosiveness. Cloudland scored on its first four possessions, and racked up 363 yards on the ground.
   Benfield led Cloudland in rushing with 161 yards on 24 carries, while Byrd tallied 148 yards on only 15 carries.
   But despite these gaudy numbers, Benfield left the field disappointed.
   "We just didn't play Highlander football tonight," Benfield said. "Our offense looked pretty good sometimes, but we made way too many mistakes. We were jumping offsides and not having enough people on the field."
   The 'Landers still made some big plays that needed to be made. Two of them that played a big part in the Highlander victory happened to be a key defensive stop deep in their own territory early in the game, and Byrd's 90-yard touchdown return on a kickoff in the second quarter.
   Even though the 'Landers had their moments in this one, Byrd was just happy to leave Cumberland Gap with a win.
   "It feels good to get out of here with a win," Byrd said. "I'm a little disappointed with the way we played and the way I played. I didn't play that well tonight. We've just got to go into practice and get ready for improvement."
   Despite not playing to the lofty expectations that have been set at Cloudland High School, it was a night for celebration. The 'Landers clinched their fourth-straight conference title.
   Benfield was happy with that accomplishment, but he has even bigger things in mind.
   "We're tickled about winning the conference, but that's our first big goal," Benfield said. "The next big goal is to go to Murfreesboro again."
   The 'Landers may not have expected the road to Murfreesboro to be this tough so soon, but Byrd expects the boys from Roan Mountain to be ready from here on out.
   "This is a shock," Byrd said. "This woke us up, I hope. When we get down playing these teams in the state, they're going to do the same thing. We've got to be prepared for that."
   And after a fairly close shave Friday night, expect the Highlanders to be prepared the rest of the way."