Line play triggers first loss for UnakaBy Marvin Birchfield
The Unaka Rangers' hopes for a perfect season ended on Friday night, and Cloudland continues to prove its the team to beat in the Mountain East Conference.
Unaka (2-1, 7-1) went into their eighth game of the season trying to stay undefeated, and after the first series of offense it seemed like it might be possible.
Cloudland (4-0, 4-4), on the other hand, had sights of remaining the top team. Following a 64-yard touchdown return off a punt by Ron Hendry, you knew the 'Landers were not about to be defeated on their home turf.
"They were blocking the first half and opening up some holes, and that's the way I like to play good football," said Cloudland coach Gary Keith, whose team, which will host its first-round playoff game, wrapped up the MEC title. "After we got our butts whipped over at Sullivan East, the players decided to work hard and stay till seven 'o clock and seven-thirty every night, and I knew then this was going to be a good ball team."
The first score came from Cloudland when it started dominating the line of scrimmage and drove down the field on it first possession.
Unaka became dormant with its ground attack, as it never had a run that gained more than 10 yards.
"It was hard to get any yards when they established the line of scrimmage up front," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor. "When you can't get any movement up front and some holes to run through, you're not going to go anywhere."
After the second touchdown off the Hendry return, it was all downhill for the Rangers, while confidence grew among the Highlander squad.
"We had great blocking and when the hole open we went for it," said B.J. Johnson. "It was big and it felt so good to win and show them we are the better team after they have been talking smack all year.
"When we went up against Cherokee and Sullivan East we struggled, but I think it pays off when you go up against bigger teams."
When Unaka finally started shutting down the run from Jonah Horney, who gained a 100-plus yards in the first half and scored a touchdown, it was Toby King stepping up for Cloudland by throwing a couple of big completions during the second and third period.
It seemed as if all the fire from the Rangers had ended, while Cloudland was enjoying itself and stifling the Unaka offense at will.
"One thing we were concerned with coming in was their aggressiveness up front," Ensor said. "Our guys don't know how to be aggressive up front yet. That's something where we made big strides, but that's something we have to keep working on because they whipped us up front and blew us off the line of scrimmage, which was the key to the ball game."
This was the first time Unaka had been completely shut down all season, and only the third time the Rangers trailed this year.
Cloudland has shown great heart after dropping four out the first five games of the season, coming back to win three straight.
"It scared the crap out of me when they took the ball down field and scored, but I'm proud of the kids," Keith said. "They took the ball right back and scored with it. The trouble that we've gone through, we could have folded, and I told them they make take the ball down the field, but you guys can't get down on yourselves."
Despite the loss by Unaka, its season is still very important considering a win over Jellico in two weeks will also give them homefield in the opening round of the playoffs.
"I don't think we were mentally ready to come out and win this ball game, and I hate to say it, but I don't think us seniors had the younger guys mentally prepared for this ball game," said Daniel McInturff. "We're going to come back and practice Monday. You can't let up because of one loss, and we play Jellico after Big Creek, and if we can win that then it means a home playoff, which is big in high school football."
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