Rangers close season against mighty 'Landers

By Travis Brown
STAR STAFF
tbrown@starhq.com

   It is the last week of the regular season, and as the Cloudland Highlanders gear up for another postseason run, they must deal with a final conference opponent before welcoming in the second season.
   The Unaka Rangers will come calling tonight, and despite a lackluster 1-8 record, the Rangers have shown steady improvement this season. The question is, will it be enough?
   Cloudland skipper Mike Lunsford is taking nothing for granted this week as he prepares his club for the final regular season test.
   "They are a very big team, they run the ball hard," Lunsford said. "They do a lot of the same things we do."
   Lunsford is impressed with the progress that Unaka has made over the course of the season
   "They are getting better -- they have been in a lot of games this season," Lunsford said.
   Unaka head coach Mike Ensor is hoping that his club can continue to get better this week.
   "Our kids are working hard. Right now we're just real young," Ensor said.
   This season has been promising for the Rangers as they have moved the ball well. However, fumble troubles and bad breaks have been the downfall for the young team.
   "We haven't been putting the ball away," Ensor said. "We do some things well except hold on to the ball."
   This week's game will feature a pair of young men looking to reach milestones.
   Unaka fullback Joey Parlier has amassed 999 yards this season, and is looking to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for this season.
   Meanwhile Cloudland quarterback Mark Byrd is looking to set a new state single-season rushing record for the quarterback position.
   The stellar junior can do so despite missing a pair of ballgames this season due to injury.
   Cloudland (9-0) will have to contend with some bumps during the contest, though, as Nathaniel Baker is doubtful for the game due to an ankle sprain.
   Tailback Dakota Benfield, who has played with injuries all season, will do so this week as well. The star runner will fight off an ankle sprain as well.
   Cloudland has been working this week to prepare not only for the Rangers but the weeks ahead as well. Pass protection has plagued the 'Landers late this season, and this week has been devoted to improving the play up front.
   "We have to get better protection," Lunsford said. "Byrd's getting flushed out of the pocket, we're not giving him an opportunity to throw."
   Lunsford feels as if the threat of the pass is key to his team's chances this week and beyond.
   "We have to maintain the threat of the pass," Lunsford said.
   This will be the last regular-season game for this group of Cloudland seniors. During the four-year tenure of this class, the 'Landers have a regular-season record of 38-1.
   Such a mark is impressive over a four-year span, and they will be looking to add yet another this Friday.
   "That says a lot about these seniors," Lunsford said. "They have worked hard and they deserve all that they have achieved."
   For both teams it will mark an end to seasons of continued hope. For the 'Landers, that hope is focused towards another postseason run.
   For the Rangers, however, that hope is looking towards next season. The current group of young men have shown great potential this season. If enough time is devoted during this off-season, next year's Rangers will poised to surprise local football fans.