'Landers slip past Bulldogs

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   Like pulling pins from a bucket full of hand grenades, the Cloudland Highlanders and Hampton Bulldogs unleashed an explosive game of football at J.C. Campbell Stadium on Thursday night.
   Fending off a valiant effort by the Bulldogs, the undefeated Highlanders rode Dakota Benfield's 221 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to post a 30-20 victory before an overflow crowd.
   "This was bragging rights right here," said Benfield, who carried the ball 21 times. "We didn't play the best that we could, but we're happy to get a win."
   While Cloudland, the top-ranked team in Class 1-A, pushed its record to 9-0, the 'Dogs reluctantly fell to 7-2 on the year.
   "Hampton deserved to win as much as we did," said Highlander head coach Mike Lunsford, whose club has won nine straight against the 'Dogs. "I can't say enough about their kids. I give credit to their staff and what they did."
   The game was a far cry from the one the 'Landers and 'Dogs played to begin the season, which resulted in a 42-14 Cloudland victory in Roan Mountain.
   "I got to looking at the film and saw how lousy we played up there," said Hampton head coach J.C. Campbell. "We didn't block anybody. I thought if we played a little, we can play with these people -- because we didn't do crap up there.
   "We didn't lose tonight because of a lack of effort."
   Hampton grabbed a 7-0 lead with 2:45 to go in the first period, with quarterback Mitchell Morton pushing across the goal line on a 1-yard run, and Cody Walsh nailing the extra-point kick.
   The 'Landers issued a hasty response as Mark Byrd returned the ensuing kickoff 66 yards, setting up a 4-yard scoring jaunt by Benfield. Byrd ran for the two-point conversion from his quarterback position, putting Cloudland ahead 8-7.
   The score stayed the same until 1:46 to go in the half, when Byrd struck for another big-gainer, going the distance on a 79-yard run down the right side. His conversion pass to Dane Christman gave the 'Landers a 16-7 advantage.
   "We didn't get a hold of (Byrd)," Campbell said. "One man can't tackle him and we didn't get help over there. That hurt."
   Then, when Benfield erupted for an 86-yard TD run on the first play of the third quarter -- making it a 22-7 game -- the 'Dogs appeared to be losing their grip.
   "In my opinion, we've got the best backfield of anybody around here," Benfield said. "We've got a good strong line and our blocking backs in the power-I are just second to none. They're awesome."
   The 'Dogs, however, battled back on their next possession, marching 67 yards to the end zone on 12 plays. Morton did the scoring honors with a 1-yard plunge on fourth-and-goal. The PAT attempt failed, leaving the 'Landers with a 22-13 advantage.
   Cloudland had the opportunity to regain a firm upper hand late in the third quarter, but Benfield came up inches short on a fourth-and-2 play inside the Bulldog 5.
   Gaining momentum with this defensive stand, Hampton used 13 plays to drive 96 yards and score on a 1-yard run by Michael Peterson. Walsh booted the extra point, and the 'Dogs only trailed 22-20 with 6:06 to go in the game.
   The 'Landers, though, were able to drive down the field and kill off most of the clock. A 14-yard run by Benfield on fourth-and-2 enabled Cloudland to keep the ball, and Byrd ran for a 3-yard touchdown with 18 seconds remaining.
   "The kids made some mistakes, but I made the biggest mistake down there at the end," Lunsford said. "I didn't know they were out of timeouts or we would've kneeled the football. That was stupid play-calling."
   Benfield caught a conversion pass from Byrd to cap the scoring and nail the coffin shut.
   "Hampton's got a great team," said Jason Grant, who played a solid game at center for the 'Landers. "They just came to play ball. Our line started pulling it out there at times, and sometimes we struggled. I'm just glad we stepped up."
   Finishing with 412 yards rushing as a team, Cloudland got 15 carries for 155 yards from the slippery Byrd.
   Christman spearheaded the 'Lander defense with a big 13-tackle showing, and Dale Baker played a major role with 10 tackles and 1.5 quarterback sacks. Jeremy Ward and Mark Barnett added eight hits apiece.
   For Hampton, Morton turned in an excellent performance by completing 10-of-17 passes for 126 yards, pacing the team on the ground with 48 yards, and racking up nine tackles.
   Corey McKinney also flourished in a Bulldog uniform, collecting a team-high 12 tackles while catching six passes for 68 yards.
   "Tonight gave us a boost, even though it's a loss," McKinney said. "Cloudland's No. 1 in the state. Nobody really expected a game, and we gave them one. We came a long way from the first time we played them. Everybody stepped up tonight, and we left it all out there.
   "We just couldn't pull out a win."
   Eric Swain made three receptions for 58 yards while Jimmy Sarrett totaled 11 tackles for the 'Dogs.
   Friday night's contest was the closest Hampton-Cloudland game since a 14-8 Highlander victory in 1998.
   "I'm very proud of my team," Campbell said. "It's hard to say you're proud when you lose, but we're proud of the effort we gave because we were playing a real good ball club.
   "If we play like this in the playoffs, we'll be competitors."
   Notes: It was senior night at Campbell Stadium, where Sarrett, McKinney, Peterson, Robby England, Kevin Harrison, Josh Nave, Brad Hodge and Pat Murphey played the final regular-season game of their productive careers. The eight seniors were honored in a pregame ceremony.