'Horns can be encouraged by first season in 4-A

MOUNTAIN CITY -- The 2001 Johnson County football season was like an "I Love Lucy" rerun. It's worth taking a look back.
   Johnson County made the playoffs for the third straight year, but this one was very special.
   You see, the Longhorns jumped up two classifications this year. They went from the Class 2-A Watauga Conference all the way up to the Class 4-A Big Eight Conference.
   The move to Class 4-A was made because the school's enrollment had increased, so the Longhorns couldn't play in 2A anymore. And they didn't want to travel all the way to Rutledge, Seymour, Gatlinburg-Pittman and Pigeon Forge, making 4-A their only option.
   Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood thought his team responded to the challenge.
   "Our kids wanted to play the best teams," Atwood said. "And they really wanted to make the playoffs this year. They wanted to prove they could play in that league."
   They proved it.
   The Longhorns finished 4-7, but that's misleading. The Longhorns faced six teams that made the playoffs, and closed the year out against Elizabethton, Tennessee High, Sullivan South and Morristown West. Three of those four teams they finished with are still playing football.
   The Longhorns know that this wasn't a losing season.
   "We don't look at it like it was a losing season," Atwood said. "We played well and made the playoffs. Our record wasn't quite as good as we wanted it to be, but we accomplished a lot and made the playoffs."
   The Longhorns showed early on that they weren't going to be an easy win for the opponent. Sullivan Central found that out first hand on a late August evening.
   Johnson County came in as a huge underdog against the Cougars, who were picked third in the conference. But the Cougars left Paul H. McEwen Stadium very unhappy after the Longhorns handed them a 7-6 loss.
   "That was a big win," Atwood said. "We felt like they were in the top half of our conference talent wise. They're a proven winner in Class 4-A. It was a big win for us, and a big win for our kids."
   The win showed some prep experts that the Longhorns were for real. Johnson County had just been picked to finish last in the Big Eight by a local publication the week before, so the win definitely silenced some critics.
   "It motivated us," Atwood said. "But we were always underdogs in Class 2-A. It wasn't that big of a factor, but we knew we were better than eighth."
   The biggest highlight of the season may have come in a loss. On October 12, the Longhorns traveled to Dave Rider Field to face the Elizabethton Cyclones. With local reporters picking the Cyclones to win big, the Longhorns had to prove they could play with the big boys, as this was their first contest against the Big Eight's elite.
   They passed the test with flying colors.
   Johnson County lost to Elizabethton 35-19 that night, but it was close just about the whole way. Longhorns fans had their heads held high on the way back to Johnson County.
   "We wanted that game," Atwood said. "We looked forward to playing them. We played hard. "We were disappointed with the loss, but I was proud of them."
   This team did go through some tough times this year. Injuries devastated the Longhorns, but others stepped up and played well in their place.
   "We were beat up pretty bad, but our young kids stepped up," Atwood said. "We overcame a lot of adversity this year."
   Atwood and his staff deserves a lot of credit for bringing competitive football back to Mountain City, but so do the seniors. It's been a long time since a senior class at Johnson County could say they've made it to the playoffs three straight times.
   "This bunch was responsible for turning the program around," Atwood said.
   The junior class has a chance to accomplish an even greater feat. They could make it four playoff appearances in four years next season. And with 17 juniors on the squad, they could definitely accomplish that, and possibly even contend for the conference crown in 2002.
   "We feel like that's going to help us," Atwood said. "The junior class is dedicated to the football program."
   Later this week, preparation for the 2002 season will begin. They don't stop in Mountain City, and that's why the program has become so successful.
   "We'll start workouts at the end of the week," Atwood said. "We don't quit. We work out after the season. We hit it harder in the winter and summer."
   The loss to Morristown West was very difficult on the players, but it was still a good season. The Longhorns had to face some brutal competition, but they played hard in every game.
   "After the kids reflect on the season, they won't be quite as disappointed," Atwood said.
   And guys, there is nothing to be disappointed about.