EHS, JCHS ready for key battle

By Ivan Sanders
STAR STAFF
isanders@starhq.com
Tonight presents an interesting time in the Mountain Lakes Conference as four teams enter their respective contest with 3-1 ledgers in the conference, and only two set to emerge in major contention after the dust settles in Elizabethton and Bristol.
Brown-Childress Stadium will see two rivals square off with the kickoff at 7:30 as Elizabethton and Johnson County go head-to-head to determine which team will remain at the top of the heap and which one will be chasing one game down. Tennessee High and Central, the other two frontrunners, are set to do battle in the Stone Castle.
"We are both tied for first place with identical 3-1 records, but they have a better overall record than we do," stated Cyclone head coach Tommy Jenkins. "Just because we have on the Cyclone uniform, people aren't going to just bow up and give in to us. We are going to have to play hard to beat Johnson County."
Both teams have seen ups and downs this season as each team lost a conference game to an opponent they should have been able to beat. For Johnson County it was Boone, a team that EHS defeated soundly last week 29-6, while the Cyclones dropped a 13-12 nailbiter to Sullivan East, a club the 'Horns knocked off 21-13 last Friday night.
Yet, for Johnson County this could very well be the year they can defeat a team that has been solid in the 4-A ranks for several years in Elizabethton.
Said Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood: "This is the first year that our kids have a legitimate chance of actually being able to play with Elizabethton. Our boys have been intimidated the last two years, but they feel like they can play with 'Betsy this year. It will be a hard-fought game."
The key to this ballgame will be each team's ability to eliminate turnovers and control the tempo of the contest. Johnson County likes to stretch out its possessions by converting first downs to eat the clock while EHS is a team that also likes to play ball control but can make big things happen quickly.
That aspect of the Cyclone team is the one that concerns Atwood the most.
"We will definitely need to slow the pace of play and get some first downs on offense to keep Elizabethton off the field," stated Atwood. "If we can keep them from making the big plays, then we have a chance to win the game."
The Longhorns will have their hands full as Elizabethton has several players that can put the ball in the end zone quickly.
Lester Bailey has racked up 582 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the year from the tailback position. Also, Adam Turley has finally came alive over the last four games for the Cyclones after a slow start to record 21 catches for 335 yards and three scores.
Throw into the mix Justin Grace and Ernie Bray, along with Brad Osborne, and the Cyclones can give any head coach a headache.
The Longhorns counter with Daniel Cranford, a two-way starter from the nose guard and linebacker slot on defense, to a ball carrier on offense. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Brinker has came into his own as well, completing 34 of 67 for 505 yards on the season and five touchdowns.
"Brinker has eight interceptions on the season that we are hoping will be scores next season," quipped Atwood. "He also runs the ball well, picking up nearly 200 yards so far on the season, plus we are going to play him on defense this week because when it gets this late in the season, you want your best players on the field."
Nathan Paisley rounds out a solid Longhorn attack with four TDs on the season for Atwood's team.
Jenkins realizes that his Cyclones will have their hands full this week, but is hoping for the same effort he got last week at Boone to carry over this week.
"If we can turn it up a notch higher this week and receive the same type of play as we got last week, then we have an opportunity to win," said Jenkins. "It was a total team effort and the coaches talked at halftime that we needed to maintain a good team attitude. We want the same this week."
Added Jenkins: "We realize that Johnson County will play a physical game against us. They have the same record in the conference and have the same opportunities as we do as for as a championship goes. The most important thing is that we do not overlook them."
With Elizabethton already defeating two-time defending conference champ Tennessee High and Johnson County recording a victory over the Central Cougars, each team already has a major obstacle out of the way.
With that thought in mind, the team that can come away from this contest tonight with a win most definitely will have a firm grasp on the championship reins. Johnson County still has to face Tennessee High and Elizabethton must travel to Blountville, but at this point in the season a win of this magnitude could act as a wave to carry the victor the rest of the way.