Improved Appalachia next foe fo Cloudland
By Rebecca Pierson
ASST. SPORTS EDITOR
The Mountain East Conference champions, the Cloudland Highlanders (4-0, 4-4 overall), will be hosting their last home game of the regular season tonight when the Appalachia Bulldogs make the trip from Southwest Virginia to Orr Field.
"We have had to do some realignment on defense this week and some rethinking," Cloudland head coach Gary Keith said. "They are a well-coached ball team. They have a lot of pride and a lot of tradition. I was telling these kids, 'How many teams can you think of that has won six state championships?' That is some elite company right there.
"I have the upmost respect for the coach. Last year, they lost a game that they shouldn't have lost and he [Tom Turner] had about six kids to quit him. He took his lumps and they ended up going 1-9 with mostly freshman.
"I thought that last year we would kill that bunch. We had our third string out there practicing offense because we thought we would beat them that bad. But those suckers were coming off the ball and driving our biggest guys into the backfield. They fought us with everything they had. They earned my respect because they didn't quit."
Appalachia is 2-4 in Lonesome Pine District and 3-5 overall, currently ranked 6th out of eight in the district.
In last year's game between the two teams, Cloudland defeated the very young 21-member team by a 56-6 score.
The 'Landers went 34 for 387 yards on the ground and had 50 yards in the air while the Bulldogs went 57 of 110 rushing and threw for 25 yards.
The Highlander team has a handful of players this season that made some plays against the Appalachia defense last year. Logan Buck had a fumble recovery while Cody Jones, Jon Harrison and Jonah Horney totaled 46 yards on the ground.
Horney made five tackles, Harrison had four, Buck had three, Jonathan Webb had three and Jones two. B. J. Johnson, Toby King and Luke Sparks also had a tackle each. Horney also ran in a three-yard touchdown run.
"I haven't gotten to see them play this year," lineman Luke Sparks said. "Coach Keith said that they are a very good ball team. We have had a few injuries and a few people sick. It's going to be a rough fight. Our confidence level is up a lot, more than it has been. We came off a big win but we just have to come out focused and ready to play."
Like Cloudland, Appalachia is coming off a win last week against Coeburn in a 27-7 victory. Andrew Leonard, one of two seniors, had three of their touchdowns, with 127 yards on 23 carries. Freshman Brett Leedy also put up some numbers, adding 111 yards on 12 rushes.
In the Bulldogs' previous week's win against St. Pauls, Leonard scored another three touchdowns, including a 77-yard kickoff return, and rushed for 158 yards. The team racked up 296 yards of offense but its defense gave up 289 yards to St. Paul.
Appalachia lost its homecoming game to Pound in one quarter, giving up a 26-7 lead to go down 29-26. They broke a 13-game losing streak against J. J. Kelly in late September, 50-28. The rest of the team matchups were losses: 36-30 against Rye Cove, 27-14 to J. I. Burton, 49-15 against Clintwood and 46-16 against Gate City.
Thus far this season, the Bulldogs have totaled 179 points with an average of 25.57, and they have allowed 234 points with an average of 33.43.
But Appalachia is a team that is deep in tradition, maybe more so than the 'Landers. They have six Division 1-A titles under their belts.
"That same group is back from last year," Keith said. "I watched them play the first game of the year against Rye Cove and they are still small and still young. But they gave Rye Cove a fit."
The Highlanders will be a bit shorthanded tonight as they have a few players either hurt or sick.
"We are just going to have to step it up like we did against Cosby," Keith said. "We had three starters out of that game. I'm scared. When I saw Appalachia play at the start of the season, they had improved. They were picked to be dead last and they came back and beat a couple of teams. They are a good ball team.
"I hope we can play well. The kids are capable of doing it. If they come out and play their best and block the way they did against Unaka, I think we will win. If they come out flat and they think when they see this team that they are going to run all over them, I just don't know."