Highlanders set to lock up conference crown

By: Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
Road trips have become an instant hit with the Cloudland Highlanders.
The top-ranked team in 1-A, according to the Associated Press, ran straight through a young Jellico Blue Devil squad on the road last week and will clinch at least a share of a fifth straight conference title with a victory at Cosby tonight.
The Eagles enter this game with only one win to their credit (a 36-0 win over Jellico), with their most recent loss taking place in their second home game, against Unaka, last week.
The Rangers had 314 yards rushing against Cosby, which did find success in its passing game with 171 yards from Levi Cooper.
"I hope we play pretty good pass defense, and the key is pressure and tight coverage," said Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford. "I hope we can be tested in that way. Cosby likes to control the ball and we'll have to play our game."
As they did against Jellico, Cloudland hopes it will be able to run the ball well against the Eagles.
"I'm not sure about our offense," the coach said. "I hope we can continue to do that. They put a lot of people in the box against Unaka."
Mark Byrd and Dakota Benfield both had three rushing scores against the Devils last week in the first half.
Benfield could jump over the 1,000-yard mark this week against the Eagles, as he enters the game with 918 yards on 96 carries with 14 touchdowns and 12 conversions.
His counterpart, Byrd, already has 1,640 yards of total offense (rushing, passing, returns).
It's very likely, if the 'Landers play the type of game they've brought all season long, their junior varsity may get another good portion at action this week.
As many people question the depth and future of the Cloudland team in coming years, a young slew of linemen and fiery backs are proving their worth each time they step on the field.
The unit scored four touchdowns on Jellico last week in the second half, taking over a 52-0 lead.
"They've improved a lot -- maybe the most improvement of any JV team I've had," Lunsford said. "They've come the furthest of any group, and I hope they continue to do that."
Cloudland also found answers last week in its kicking game as sophomore Cody Jones hit three of four PATs. Lunsford hopes the team can improve at that in the coming weeks.
Cloudland's been working on its overall game, but perhaps the biggest improvements on the year have came defensively.
"I've been very pleased with the way our defense has played," said Lunsford. "They've done pretty well and I hope we can continue to get better."
Dane Christman leads the 'Landers with over 70 tackles through six games.
Another thing that many people forget about this squad is the consistent play from its linemen. Jake Gibbs, Chris 'The Bus' Sheets, Jeff Lunsford, Zach Cook and Steven Frye have shown a lot of heart each week on the football field.
They are a big reason for the numbers by the backs, and open up holes defensively for the Cloudland linebackers.
The Highlanders enter this Friday night ranked third in Earl Nall's Prep Performance Ratings and the Sonny Moore Tennessee High School Football Rankings. They are ranked number one in Donovan Stewart's Power Poll.
Cloudland leaves Roan Mountain at 3 p.m. today for the long trip to Cocke County. Kickoff is at 7:30.