Heart and pride spur 'Landers to gridiron greatness

If there are still any doubters out there about the legitimacy of the Cloudland Highlander football squad, you certainly can't count the South Pittsburg Pirates among them.
   The 'Landers completed a four game home playoff sweep with a convincing 44-6 thumping of the Pirates on Friday night at Orr Field, and now face one last hurdle to complete a championship season.
   "I can't describe this feeling, being the first team from East Tennessee to go to the state, it's unbelievable," said senior tight end / defensive end Brandon Odom. "I just think that the determination of these guys told us we weren't going to let down. We just kept pounding them, until they got tired."
   That pounding began from the first series and didn't let up until under a minute was left in the contest, and head coach Mike Lunsford was given his ice water shower on the 'Lander sidelines.
   "These kids play so hard, and they play smart," said Lunsford. "They never let up on (South Pittsburg) until the end. The concentration was there all game long. I'm as proud of this team as I can be, and this feeling is even better than what I imagined it would be."
   What seemed to be the difference in each of Cloudland's playoff wins is that the 'Landers played until the final whistle and never let up. That kind of relentless determination and concentration could be the key to Cloudland taking home a State championship title.
   "We never feel like we're down or out of a game," said sophomore tailback Dakota Benfield, who along with quarterback Mark Byrd, symbolizes the concentration and determination of this team. "We want to focus now on having a good week of practice, and getting over the final hurdle. The defense did the job in the first half, while we struggled a little on offense. But that's the way it is on this team, guys pick each other up.
   "We knew we couldn't let up on these guys because they have had a lot of second half comebacks this year, and we knew they wouldn't quit."
   The battle in the trenches seemed to be an evenly matched slugfest in the first quarter as neither team could manage to gain ground or advantage over the other.
   The 'Landers however, have a group of senior leaders up front that play relentlessly, blocking anything in an opposing colored jersey until a path was cleared.
   "We just got it in our heads that we had to keep after them, that we would wear them down," said senior center John Hicks. "I'm just tickled to death about this. We worked real hard for this, and we want to climb that last mountain and stand at the top."
   Byrd came into the contest slowed by an intestinal flu that weakened him physically. But Byrd is such a fiery competitor that nothing will keep him down if he is able to put on the pads, he goes full out.
   "I think the heart and determination of this team is awesome, and just took over the game," said Byrd. "We just have a will to win that can't be denied."
   Despite playing courageously and gamely, the Pirates seemed to know midway through the second half, that the 'Landers were simply too good for them to overcome.
   In a gesture that seemed to indicate the waving of the white flag, South Pittsburg quarterback / safety Tristan Chubb was being exhorted by a group of South Pittsburgh fans along the fence near the Pirate endzone, that were pleading for the Pirates to hold the line as Cloudland knocked once more at their goal line.
   With the score 36-6 in favor of Cloudland, the South Pittsburg fans seemed to still hold faith that their team could come back, or at least that they would not give up another score.
   Chubb simply shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and pointed to the Cloudland team breaking the huddle and put his hands together as if applauding their efforts.
   "I feel like we have been underestimated by folks all year, being we're just a little team from the sticks," said Cloudland junior fullback / linebacker Mark Barnett. "But, by God, I feel like we sent them all a message tonight. At least I hope so. They better know who we are."