'Landers, 'Dogs fuel engines for county rematch

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   The Cloudland High football team is to high-powered offense what the Tilt-A-Whirl is to a chaotic ride at the amusement park. The Highlanders deliver the goods.
   The top-ranked Class 1-A squad rolls into Thursday night's football clash at county rival Hampton leading the state in scoring with 385 points, and averaging 48.1 points per game.
   "Overall, as the season has gone on, I feel like our offense has been a little more efficient than it was a year ago," said Highlander head coach Mike Lunsford, whose team averaged a whopping 42.3 points a game last season. "I think we're probably making fewer mistakes than a year ago offensively, with the exception of maybe the other night (in last Friday's 44-24 Cloudland win at Powell Valley)."
   With the unbeaten 'Landers (8-0) also sporting a stubborn defense and dangerous return game, Bulldog head coach J.C. Campbell doesn't see Cloudland as a team in need.
   "They're strong at every position," said Campbell, his team looking to stop an eight-game losing streak to the 'Landers. "They've got depth at every position. They've got super athletes, a quarterback, a running back, a linebacker -- and they're well-coached.
   "They've got everything you could want except a punting game, and I don't reckon they've had to use that."
   The 'Landers didn't need their punting game when the two teams opened the season in Roan Mountain, and Cloudland breezed to a 42-14 victory.
   Hampton (7-1), though, has not lost a game since, establishing itself as one of the top teams in the area.
   With that in mind, Lunsford feels as if his 'Landers will receive a worthy challenge this Thursday.
   "I expect it to be a good football game," he said. "I think Hampton is going to play hard and give everything they've got. There's a lot of bragging rights on the line, and they're 7-1. Hampton, generally speaking, is a slow-starting team, and they improve as the season goes on.
   "I think they've done that. Sometimes when you catch Hampton early you catch them before they're really ready -- we're a little bit that way. I just think either team has a good opportunity to win."
   Campbell, perhaps more than anyone, hopes the 'Dogs are better equipped to take on the 'Landers this time around.
   "Lord have mercy, we can't play that bad again," Campbell said. "I'm not saying we're the greatest thing in the world or anything like that, but we didn't put up much for them to run on.
   "We weren't as ready to play as we thought we were when we played Cloudland. We got a rude awakening. There were so many things we needed to work on that we hadn't done properly. Hopefully, some of those things are worked out."
   The 'Dogs can up their chances of victory by keeping Highlander quarterback Mark Byrd from running wild, which is easier said than done.
   Byrd carried nine times for 124 yards in the season-opener, topped the 750-yard rushing mark this year with a 148-yard showing at Powell Valley, and is averaging 15 yards per carry for the year.
   Tailback Dakota Benfield (161 yards vs. Powell Valley), who has rushed for better than 900 yards this year, is another huge threat, and Derrick Birchfield, Mark Barnett and Dustin Sluder round out a deep and talented backfield.
   Barnett, at linebacker, is the chairman of the board on the Cloudland defense, while defensive end Dane Christman helps lead the way.
   The 'Landers, though, had a tough night defending the pass last week vs. Powell Valley. Cloudland yielded 248 yards through the air, with 208 of those going to Indians wideout Rusty Loza.
   On that note, the 'Landers were not totally thrilled with their most recent performance, which led to their smallest margin of victory this year.
   "I think we had a really good day of preparation (Monday)," Lunsford said. "We got a lot of things accomplished on the field, and I think we've improved in some areas. When the kids don't see a need for improvement, it's hard to improve. I think they were all a little bit disappointed with themselves and they want to play a little bit better than they did last week. It got their attention."
   Hampton counters offensively with tailback Michael Peterson (889 yards rushing), who joins Benfield in closing in on the 1,000-yard rushing mark, and quarterback Mitchell Morton, who has accounted for nine rushing touchdowns and eight passing TDs.
   Peterson carried 25 times for 143 yards in the 'Dogs' 22-14 victory at West Greene last week. Jimmy Sarrett added 63 yards on 12 carries, while Morton ran for a pair of TDs and a two-point conversion.
   "We played a pretty good team the other night," Campbell said. "West Greene has got a pretty good ballclub, experienced and strong. We didn't give up and just hung in there. We didn't by any imagination dominate or anything, but we were able to get a win. We've had three or four games like that this year."
   The 'Dogs have been solid defensively after the loss to Cloudland. Lineman Robby England comes off an 11-tackle, 3-sack effort, and Justin Waycaster and Pat Murphey seemed to turn their games up a notch against the Buffaloes.
   Kickoff between Cloudland and Hampton is set for 7:30. This will be the 'Dogs' regular-season home finale.