Highlanders run roughshod Rangers; emotions run high


Photo by Dave Boyd
Unaka running back Charles Guinn (1) is met by Cloudland linebacker Dane Christman.

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com
Cloudland continued to make a statement of why it's considered to be a state title contender, dismantling the Unaka Rangers 72-13 at Goddard Field on Friday night.
The 'Landers improved to 8-0 (4-0) on the season, clinching the conference crown, while the Rangers (4-4, 1-2) will try to bounce back from a costly game.
It was a close contest for the first 10 minutes, but an overpowering 'Lander squad took its toll by the night's end, which sparked emotions.
"I know it makes it difficult to go through the playoffs when we don't play our kids no more than what we have," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford. "Our lineman need to play, and we've had a couple of backups who are out with injuries."
A touchdown from senior tailback Dakota Benfield halfway in the third period didn't sit well with the Unaka coaching staff, as the Rangers were already trailing by a total of 47 points.
"There's no use to be up on a team 60-13 and have your all-state running back and quarterback still in the ball game," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor. "He's got to do what it takes to prepare himself to go to the state championship and I wish him well, but I have had a lot of chances to do the same thing and chose not to."
Unaka came out ready to play early on, recovering an onside kick on the opening kickoff.
"They played us well early in the game and hung in there doing a good job," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford.
Joe Estep made the recovery for the Rangers, but three plays later a fumble on an inside handoff stopped the momentum.
Mark Byrd went to work right off the bat with a 30-yard run down to the Ranger 16-yard line.
"I thought the line did pretty good tonight," said Byrd. "We struggled early on the first series, but after we picked up, the game changed."
Two straight carries from Benfield gave the 'Landers their first score of the night leading 8-0 with 9:59 left in the first.
Unaka came right back to drive down the field with a 19-yard run off the quarterback keeper by Brandon Irick.
Charles Lee Guinn came up big for Unaka, as he found a crease on the outside and exploded for a 43-yard touchdown to pull the Rangers within two.
"There weren't too many holes out there -- their lineman were so much bigger, and our lineman did what they could," said Guinn. "I found a couple of holes and scored on one of them, but the linebackers came up and hit me before I ever got started."
Unaka missed the extra-point attempt and made a valiant effort of stalling the high-powered offense of the 'Landers.
A near stoppage of Cloudland came around midfield when Andrew Richardson put a pop on Benfield for a three-yard loss, making it fourth-and-six.
The 'Landers went back to Benfield on fourth down, and he was successful in getting the first with a nine yard gain.
Byrd put the final touches on the drive with a 25-yard scamper and spin move at the 15 to give the 'Landers a 16-6 lead with 5:18 left in the first period.
Cloudland stepped up its defense and exploded by scoring two more touchdowns before the quarter came to an end.
After the Rangers went three and out, they elected to punt from their own territory.
A snap over the punter's head gave Cloudland the ball at the Ranger 4, and Unaka never quite seem to get in sync afterwards.
"I'm not trying to spout sour grapes. They're better than us, but along with being good comes other things, too," said Ensor. "He's got great kids -- Byrd and Benfield are a class act -- and I like Mike Lunsford, but I've lost a little respect for him after tonight."
A four-yard run from Benfield and a 15-yard draw by Byrd gave the 'Landers a 30-6 lead with 27 seconds left in the period.
It became a brutal first half for Unaka with starters Cody Hurley and Travis Pasquale receiving injuries.
"We had several injuries tonight. We sent Travis Pasquale and Cody Hurley both to the hospital to get x-rays," said Ensor. "We had two others receive concussions and another with both pulled groins muscles. It was just a mass shooting."
Benfield added two more touchdowns for the 'Landers in the second half, the first one coming on an 18-yard run and the other one off a 21-yard interceptions return.
Byrd also added his third rushing touchdown of the game, when he saw daylight through the middle for a five-yard score.
"I think we can play a little bit better," Byrd said. "We've had some problems starting out and I don't know if it's because we're not mentally or physically prepared. We need to change some stuff before we get to the playoffs."
The 'Landers led impressively, 54-6, at the end of the first half, and continued their dominance throughout the remainder of the contest.
A battered Ranger club was unable to get a first down on their opening series of the second half, which forced them to punt.
The Rangers made the mistake by kicking it into the arms of Byrd, who ran it back for a 62-yard touchdown.
"I thought they were going to kick it out of bounds," Byrd said. "They had been doing it all night, and I looked up and right there it was then I got good blocking taking it to the house."
Byrd ended the night with 109 yards on the ground and four touchdowns, while Benfield accumulated a total of five with 144 yards rushing.
Unaka captured another score midway through the third when Guinn turned the outside corner and made a nice cutback inside around the 35-yard line.
"You lower your helmet and try to run over them, but a lot of them are not small enough to do so," said Guinn.
The run went for 67 yards, as Guinn finished the with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
"We came out and hit them in the mouth pretty good first quarter, but we had a couple of players get hurt and lost our momentum and there wasn't anything we could do then," said Guinn.
With the first offense on the field for Cloudland and a 47-point lead, the Ranger staff became irate after a 43-yard run from Benfield increased the advantage to 66-13 with 6:35 left in the third.
"They can say what all they want to about subbing and talk about needing to play their lineman to get them in shape all they want to," said Ensor. "When he had us down 60-13 and we had just scored, he put his first offense back in and Dakota Benfield ran a 40 yard touchdown.
"I have the film to show it and there's no use to beat a team 72-13. When you sub after having a team's heart took, then there's no use."
A heated conversation with the two head coaches after the game led to some hostility as both sides were expressing their concerns.
"They were driving the ball on us and we put the second unit in and they scored," said Lunsford. "We put the starters back in to move the ball out a little, and so happens Dakota broke one."
Unaka was plagued by players getting hurt in the fourth with lineman Kasey Garland going down, and by night's end there was a total of five key injuries.
Cloudland did show a little restraint by electing to kick a field goal at the Ranger 2 on first down, but a 12-yard touchdown by Michael Lunsford with 1:05 left in regulation ignited the emotions even more.
"We went to the third unit and eventually we went to the eighth graders, and what else can you do," said Lunsford. "I didn't want them to score, but I can't tell them to not go out there and play, and they were knocking the living daylights out of us with their first team when we had our second team in there."