Early part of schedule rugged for Johnson County

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY--A couple of years ago, the Johnson County football team made a jump from Class 2A to Class 4A.
   The Longhorn basketball team continues to play in Class AA in the three classification system, but you couldn't tell it by looking at the early part of the schedule.
   Johnson County's schedule early on in the season includes solid AAA programs like Greeneville, Science Hill, Tennessee High and Sullivan East, as well as a trip to a big tournament in Colorado.
   The one that probably jumps out is the game with Science Hill. The 'Toppers were the state runner-up last season, and won three state titles in the 1990's.
   That game will be part of the Roundball in the Hall festivities, which take place on Dec. 6. The Longhorns will take on legendary head coach Dale Burns and the Tennessee High Vikings the next night.
   Johnson County head coach Austin Atwood was a little bit hesitant to schedule these teams, but he thought it would be best for his boys in the long run.
   "We had a tough schedule last year, and I told myself that I'm not going to do that again," Atwood said. "But (Science Hill head coach Mike Poe) called and invited us to the Roundball in the Hall, and of course we accepted it. Our boys wanted to go play. But Coach Poe runs one of the best programs in the state. It has been for the last 10 or 12 years I guess. Then we'll have Tennessee High the very next night, and we start the season off with Greeneville.
   "Our first four games we play three of the best teams around. It could go either way. I hope we can accept the challenge, and maybe compete with those guys just a little bit. But it will be good for our boys to play in Freedom Hall in a good atmosphere."
   It will be interesting to see how well the basketball team handles playing these tradition-rich schools. Last year, Tennessee High won the District 1-AAA title, while Science Hill took top honors in the Region 1-AAA Tournament.
   "It's just a challenge for our boys," Atwood said. "They can step up and accept it, and I think they will. I think they'll play hard anyway.
   The Greeneville game will be at Johnson County in the Longhorns' Tip-off Tournament on Nov. 22. The Greene Devils feature Chattanooga commitment Matt Malone, who is one of the best guards around.
   With that contest against the Greene Devils being right in the middle of the TSSAA football playoffs, Atwood is hoping for a little bit of help from the Greene Devil football team.
   "I'm really pulling for Greeneville to make the playoffs," Atwood said. "I wouldn't mind to see Science Hill make the playoffs either, and win the state championship."
   Sullivan East was a surprise addition to the Longhorn schedule. The two teams hadn't planned on playing each other, but they had a change of heart and decided to play in the Tip-off Tournament.
   Atwood played for Sullivan East head coach John Dyer at Johnson County, and the games were very hard on the close friends.
   But Dyer agreed to play him one game, and Atwood was happy to do it.
   "We're not going to play in the regular season, we're just going to play in this Tip-off Tournament," Atwood said. "I think he wanted to give me another chance, because he beat me both times. Besides my dad, I have a lot of respect for John Dyer, and I'm glad we're going to get to play again."
   Once the games with Class AAA schools are over with, the Longhorns will be flying out to Colorado for one of the top tournaments in the west.
   "We're going to fly out on Dec. 11 and fly into Denver," Atwood said. "Then we'll drive on into Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They say it's one of the biggest tournaments in the west. They say that three of the schools in it are ranked in Colorado. I don't know how good Colorado basketball is, but from who I have talked to they say it's pretty tough."
   With all these tough schools on the schedule, Atwood is hoping it will pay dividends for him when the Watauga Conference season starts.
   "We're looking down the road," Atwood said. "When you've got Elizabethton, Sullivan Central and Volunteer on your schedule, that's three teams that like to pressure you. The pace is fast pace, and that's the way these bigger teams play. I'm hoping it will help us down the road.
   This team should be able to handle the challenges. The Longhorns return four starters in Tommy Short, Judd Shoun, Michael Lipford and Matt Cornett, who is considered one of the top players in Northeast Tennessee.
   Some people are even considering this team to be a major challenger for the Watauga Conference title this season. Atwood is one of those guys.
   "I definitely believe it," Atwood said. "We've got a chance, and we've got some players. If we can just stay healthy. We're looking at a couple of football boys coming out, and that will help us. For the most part we will be at full strength."