'Landers travel across border

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
Last season, it would've been a battle for the ages.
A Division 1 State Runner-Up Appalachia squad against a state semifinalist and 2001 1-A State Runner-Up in Cloudland.
So when you compare the 1-7 and 8-0 records in this week's contest, it makes things seem pale on the football field Friday night.
The Appalachia Bulldogs lost a host of seniors, including former quarterback Josh Mabes and Jeremy Price, who are now uniformed with UVA-Wise.
It will be tough for the squad, which is down to 16 players. According to legendary head coach Tom Turner, it's been a mode of survival for the group.
"We've lost more in the last three weeks, plus we graduated 12 last year, so we're trying to rebuild and regroup," Turner said. "We've got new kids in and we're trying to learn them in different positions. So we're regrouping and getting ready for next year."
Turner said things has been tough on the program after word of consolidation between schools has risen up in Wise County.
"They've talked about combining schools and the future's unsure here," he said. "Things are not good in the coal town -- we've got to do the best we can do."
The towns of Appalachia and Roan Mountain are similar in that both are proud of their football teams.
"It's going to be like Greenback from last year," said Cloudland quarterback Mark Byrd. "They've got a good program and both sides will have a lot of fan support, hopefully. I think that we should be up for this one."
Last season, Appalachia had the firepower to throw the football well. This year, it has mostly been placed back on their ground game.
"I know they run a straight-T and that they're not as strong as they've been in the past, of course, I don't know what that means," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford. "They normally are a quality football team and generally speaking, in all honesty, the teams over in Virginia who are the same size as us are stronger than us and that's the way it's been in the past."
The Cloudland offense and especially the linemen will be tested, as Appalachia has allowed a 25.75 point average per game.
"I think it will help us a lot down the road," said 'Lander lineman Jake Gibbs, who expects to play more this week. "If we get in better shape, we might go farther."
This game will probably see a lot of things from Cloudland's passing attack, as the unit produced a subpar performance last week.
"We've got to get better at running our patterns," said receiver Bebo Hughes. "Our patterns and timing has been off. Defensively, we've got to keep doing what we've been doing."
One big problem for the 'Landers this week will be injuries.
Two of the squad's top reserve linemen will be out, as will starting tight end Aaron Stocton, who re-aggravated a knee injury last week against Unaka, and starting linebacker Jon Pritchard.
Stocton is expected to be fine, possibly returning to action in two weeks. Pritchard should be back on the field next week against J.J. Kelly.
"Hopefully, we can give them a good game and have a chance to win," Lunsford said. "We're banged up a little bit. Probably the most banged up we've been all year. We've got a lot of kids out."
"We'll be moving a lot of kids around and playing them in positions they're not accustomed to," he said.
The Bulldogs look forward to their game against Cloudland, which enters the week averaging 59 points per game.
"We look forward to the game," Turner said. "I wish we were more equipped. It's scary. I hope we have enough to finish the game."
"They've got a good running back and quarterback, and they're tough on the line," he said. "They score a lot of points and they have a good program going. It's a sad time for us to be playing them really, but I look forward to the challenge."
'Lander tailback Dakota Benfield knows that it will be a tough battle.
"Appalachia's a powerhouse school and they have a real good football program," said Benfield. "It's like Lunsford said yesterday at practice, 'Good programs, whether they're down or not, they find a way to win.'
"We've just got to stay focused and we can't let what happened last Friday night distract us from our game-plan and what we want to do the rest of the year."
DIRECTIONS: If you're wanting to make the long trip to Appalachia, take I-26 from Johnson City into Kingsport and take the left fork at the end into Gate City.
Stay on 23N and 58 through Weber City, Gate City and Duffield before taking Exit One towards Big Stone Gap. Then go left and pass through two red lights.
At the third light, turn right beside Powell Valley National Bank. Go through four more lights in Big Stone Gap before traveling four miles into the town of Appalachia.
Pass through three red lights in the town, two of which are on a bridge, and the high school is on the left.