'Landers gear for playoffs

By Travis Brown
STAR STAFF
tbrown@starhq.com

   The regular season is now complete and the Cloudland Highlanders are preparing to embark on another postseason journey.
   This year, however, expectations will be running even higher as some have touted this Highlander squad as good enough to defeat Ezell-Harding.
   That remains to be seen however, as this year's postseason trek will be a difficult one.
   The first three weeks are very winnable games. After destroying their first four opponents last season, this year's team may likely see stiffer resistance in the early rounds.
   The Midway Green Wave will come calling this Friday and despite a 5-5 record they are a solid football team. Cloudland should defeat them soundly, but it may be a dangerous game.
   Next the 'Landers will likely see Coalfield, although conference opponent Powell Valley may likely upset the Yellow Jackets and prompt a regular-season rematch with the pass happy Indians.
   The Greenback Cherokees will likely progress to the third round. Should they do so the 'Landers should defeat them as well.
   Greenback has looked good this year, especially on defense. The Cherokees have held their opponents to seven points or less seven times this season.
   The fourth week of the playoffs will bring a legitimate threat to the schedule for the 'Landers. Of the three probables (Boyd Buchanan, South Pittsburg and Gordonsville), the 'Landers will most likely see Boyd Buchanan.
   The Buccaneers have looked impressive this season, with their lone loss coming at the hands of the Eagles from Ezell-Harding.
   At the time the Buccaneers were second in the state AP poll and were considered by some a favorite to beat the Eagles.
   That contest firmly established Ezell as the team to beat in middle Tennessee.
   If the 'Landers defeat their fourth-round opponent, most likely they shall face a rematch from last season against the Eagles.
   Collinwood or USJ may also make it to the big dance, but one of these two teams are the only real threats to Ezell coming out of the west bracket.
   The Eagles graduated quarterback J.P. Shelley but have a host of weapons and a solid replacement quarterback in junior Randy Schlappi.
   Rebuild is not the word, the Eagles have simply reloaded and will showcase a west coast style offense, with speed that most 4 and 5A schools would envy.
   For the 'Landers to make it to the big dance once again, and for them to win that game the task will fall totally on the shoulders of Mark Byrd.
   The 'Landers have displayed team unity all season, and they have a talented tailback in Dakota Benfield.
   The fourth and fifth rounds of the playoffs will feature teams with equal talent and solid coaching staffs.
   Offensively there is not a team in 1A that can keep the 'Landers from scoring more than 20 points.
   However, with poor defensive play at times, the 'Landers have proven suspect at some points this season.
   If head coach Mike Lunsford can find the right mix of blitz and coverage packages to solidify his defensive backfield, and if Dakota Benfield and Mark Byrd have all-world performances, the Highlanders may very well avenge last season's defeat.
   Should injuries strike the 'Lander offensive or defensive lines, or if the Cloudland defensive unit hits a slump, they may be prone to a third or fourth-round upset.
   As they say, 'That's why they play the game,' so I suppose we will just have to wait. But one thing is certain: this season's trip to MTSU will be a more difficult one.