'Landers clobber Bulldogs

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
APPALACHIA, Va. -- When the Cloudland Highlanders stepped off the bus into Riggs Stadium and saw the Appalachia Bulldogs, they may have underestimated them a little bit.
Despite playing a young team lacking numbers, the top-ranked 'Landers became involved in a battle.
Cloudland's first team dominated the game, scoring 45 points in their first half, but the Bulldogs showed a lot of heart late in the game and fought through a 52-6 loss at the hands of the 'Landers.
"There's a lot to say about this (Appalachia) group of kids here," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford. "They've played hard and with as much toughness and heart as any team we've played this year. (Coach Turner) got a lot to be proud of. They have no let up in them. They really impressed me."
The six-time Virginia state champion has been down this season after an opening win against Rye Cove, and despite gaining only 53 yards in the first half, fought hard.
"We're trying to rebuild a little bit and we've had a rough time with people not showing up and quitting," said Appalachia coach Tom Turner. "They played hard and with a lot of heart. They played a good football team tonight, unlike what we've seen the last two or three weeks."
Cloudland scored on their first offensive play of the second half and the Bulldogs gave a strong effort in running the clock down with their run game, scoring late in the third quarter.
"They're not the type of team they've been in the past, but you can see the fight in them and the ability of the coaches to make them fight back as hard as they could," said Lunsford. "They're a well coached team and an extremely tough team that fought hard to the end."
Dakota Benfield led Cloudland with 140 yards on seven carries, while Mark Byrd totaled 128 yards on six carries with a 50-yard touchdown strike.
The big number at the end of the game is 1,056 which was totaled Saturday afternoon, showing that Byrd has already broken his TSSAA state record for regular season rushing yards by a quarterback.
Last year, Byrd had 1,055 yards rushing in the regular season despite missing two games to an injury.
A lot of the credit for those yards goes to the Cloudland linemen, who also had a solid game of work, with a big effort towards playoff time.
"I think we got a lot out of the game and we played the line a lot so they got to work," added Lunsford. "Our kids did a lot of things well and they made us do things well."
The Highlanders took the ball after recovering an onside kick to open the game. It took Benfield one play to blast 57 yards for a quick score.
After holding Appalachia, Byrd got in the action with Benfield, with big gains setting up a three-yard touchdown from Jonah Horney.
The Bulldogs tried to establish their passing game on their second series of the game. But a solid hold on the fifty yard line put Byrd in position for a big play where he rolled right and found Bebo Hughes open deep for a 50-yard trip to paydirt, taking a 22-0 lead.
Appalachia ran soundly behind Sammy Jessee and Joshua Scott, before a failed halfback pass and some losses forced another punt.
Cloudland ran into the second quarter after gains of 18 and 16 from Benfield and a 22-yarder from Byrd. On the first play of the frame, Byrd repeated his earlier gain, this time dashing 22 yards towards the Doghouse.
The Bulldogs were held on three straight downs when they returned their offensive efforts, but things seemed promising when a dropped snap in the backfield led quarterback Andrew Leonard to a first down.
The 'Landers stepped up on the next play, with Dane Christman, Jake Gibbs and Jeff Lunsford pressuring a fumble for 'The Bus,' Chris Sheets.
One play later, Byrd was standing in the end zone again, as he broke loose for a 36-yard score.
The quarter closed with Dewayne Campbell stepping up big for the Highlanders with a 37-yard touchdown run.
After three deep stops, Gibbs and Sheets used their bodies to block a punt deep in Bulldog territory. It gave Bryan Simmons room to run on the first play of the half, as he bolted eight yards to score.
Appalachia then made their drive of the game behind a solid overall effort from Jessee and Scott. Leonard finally found success in the air with a 22-yard throw to Jessee, before taking two runs of his own to plow through a four-yard score with a minute left in the third.
Cloudland ran the clock down throughout the fourth quarter, and when Appalachia got the ball back, big Logan Buck pulled through with a fumble recovery after a blitzed handoff.
The clock wound down from there.
The game was injury free and didn't see many yellow flags from the VHSL crew, who ran the clock down throughout the second half with the exception of timeouts and scores.
"(Cloudland) has a good ballclub and we hope they'll win it all this year," Turner said. "We're tickled to death to play them, we just hope we could've gave them a better contest. It's a good experience for mine and it's good to help raise them. We appreciate the effort they gave, it was just a good clean game."
Although the 'Landers took the victory, the overall feeling of the team was disappointment as they felt like they never showed up.
"We were just lacking a lot of concentration," said Christman, who added a game-high 14 tackles. "When you come out and see a team like that, it's easy to underestimate them. That's about it, a lack of concentration and underestimation."
"They were young and even though the score didn't show it, they whipped us in every aspect of the game," Byrd said. "I'm kind of bummed over the whole situation."
"It will help us next week, we've got a game at home and hopefully we can work on our mistakes and get ready for J.J. Kelly and the playoffs."
For Benfield, the team is going to have to step things up in order to be competitive in the playoffs.
"We did not play up to par at all in my opinion," he said. "On special teams we struggled all night. Offense, we did all right, but we could've done better. The defense was hit and miss all night."
"We're going to have to play a lot better if we expect to do good in the playoffs. We can't play like we did tonight and expect to go anywhere."
The Highlanders face J.J. Kelly this Thursday night in the final regular season battle for the stellar group of seniors.
NOTES: Cloudland was listed as one of the 1-A favorites from the east recently in Nashville's The Tennessean. The paper also listed the squad in their weekly preps feature with an outlook on their scoring this season.
The Highlanders have scored 452 points thus far in the season. If the Highlanders score at least 66 points in their next four games, they could claim the state record held by South Pittsburg in 1998.
If Cloudland makes the state championship game, they would need to average 52 into that game. However, they could undoubtedly finish in the state's all-time top four scoring teams by the end of the quarterfinal round of the playoffs if they make it that far.