Unexpected exit for No. 1 Highlanders

By Wes Holtsclaw

   The Cloudland Highlanders were fatigued by the end of the third quarter while their opposition hadn't even started to stage their comeback.
   In the biggest shocker in the first round of the TSSAA Class 1A playoffs, top-ranked Cloudland fell apart after a 30-10 lead, allowing the Christian Academy of Knoxville Warriors to throw their way around to a 31-30 comeback victory on Orr Field.
   It was a sudden end to the squad Mike Lunsford was sure to guide to the state championship game once again.
   "It hurts," said Lunsford. "It probably hurts worse than any loss I've ever had, to be honest with you. We knew how good they were on offense. They came up and made two or three big stops and stopped us on fourth down three times in the second half. Nobody's done that all year, but they deserve the credit. They did a great job.
   "I think we got a little tired
in the line, and that may have cost us."
   Said 'Lander tailback Dakota Benfield: "I'm disgusted. We didn't take it one game at a time and by no means did we think we were going to walk over them, but I think we underestimated them a whole lot. We didn't click tonight. We got put in bad situations and we didn't make the plays we needed to come out on top."
   Warrior quarterback Mark Cunningham threw for 252 yards in the second half, compiling 343 yards and three touchdowns in the game. Two of the scores coming in the fourth quarter, while 192 of the receiving yards went to Taylor Yoakley.
   "We're a second half team, we've been that all year long," said Cunningham. "Cloudland's got a great team, but my receivers made big plays and my offensive line kept them off of me all night long. For us to get this win is a boost to our program."
   "They played well and we just couldn't defend the pass," Lunsford said. "Our kids played hard, gave effort and did all they can do. (Yoakley's) a heck of a receiver. We didn't have anybody who could play under him. That's our fault coaching, that's my fault."
   "I thought we were ready for them," said Cloudland linebacker Dane Christman. "I thought we could hold them but we couldn't. That number nine (Yoakley) just caught the ball all over the field and there wasn't much to do."
   Cloudland's seniors gave a strong outing in their final performance in a 'Lander uniform.
   Mark Byrd led the game with 357 total yards (16 for 129 rushing, 90 passing and 138 on returns), a special teams touchdown, passing score and a team-high 12 tackles in his final high school outing.
   Benfield had 166 yards on the ground with two scores for the 'Landers.
   Defensively, Christman added eight tackles for Cloudland while Jeff Lunsford and Zach Cook added several pressures and a sack a piece.
   After a series of punts, the 'Landers made the first strike of the game when Byrd returned a punt 70 yards to the end zone without being touched.
   In something that would come back to haunt Cloudland, a crucial Benfield attempt on the conversion fell short of the goal line.
   Cloudland forced another punt and went to the air, as Byrd connected with Aaron Stocton for a 30-yard score. This time, Benfield's conversion was a success, putting Cloudland up 14-0.
   The Warriors slowly began to creep on the Highlanders as Cunningham set up David Park with a 27-yard field goal to begin the second quarter.
   After Byrd hit Toby King with a 60-yard strike on the next series, Benfield plowed into the end zone from one out to give the 'Landers a returning shot. King made a conversion grab from Byrd to make it 22-3 for Cloudland.
   Before the end of the half, Cunningham guided his squad down the field before touching Taylor Yoakley with a 5-yard touchdown pass. The kick pulled the opposing squad within 12 at the break.
   Cloudland put together a solid drive to open the second half, marching down the field behind big runs from Byrd and Benfield, before the latter took a six-yarder in for a score. Stocton made the conversion grab this round, putting the 'Landers up 30-10.
   For the Warriors, things weren't through. In fact, the comeback was just about to begin.
   Cunningham and Yoakley lit up Cloudland's defensive secondary with Brendan Japp pulling through with a big 29-yard scoring catch before the end of the third period.
   Cloudland had the ball inside the CAK 30-yard line on their next drive, but defensive pressure wouldn't give them any ground.
   It appeared as though the tide was changing as Cunningham hit Yoakley with completions of 12 and 13 before touching Japp with a 37 yard strike that appeared to be close to a score.
   However, Benfield came up from behind to bat the ball out of Japp's hands and into the end zone where Toby King made the recovery.
   Cloudland drove from their 20 with runs from Jonah Horney, Benfield and Byrd. The Highlanders got deep in CAK's territory on a Benfield dive run, but got caught on two sweeps before a fumbled snap gave the Warriors another try.
   The Warriors bounced back. This time, Cunningham only needed three throws before landing Japp with a 20-yard strike. The point after made it a six point game in Cloudland's favor.
   It was do-or-die time for the 'Landers. Byrd and Benfield rallied with runs of 22 and 23 to move it down the field. Benfield gained eight yards on the first two plays inside the CAK 30.
   However, a sweep put Benfield back a yard and on the next play another sweep was wrapped up and left Cloudland a yard short.
   The Highlanders didn't try a pass play in the second half.
   CAK rallied back in clutch time as Yoakley made two straight grabs of 18 and 28 to move the chains as the clock wound down. Cloudland held CAK to crucial third down plays twice, but Yoakley pulled them through with a 12-yard grab with 15 seconds to go.
   It only took one play for Cunningham to find Nathan Chesney, as Benfield missed a tip and the ball landed in his hands through the corner of the end zone to tie the game.
   After having two extra points blocked the week prior, Park pulled through with the big kick to take the 31-30 lead with five seconds to go.
   On the kickoff, the ball was fumbled back where Benfield pitched it to Byrd. Cloudland's wall collapsed and there was nothing the all-stater could do as a swarm of Warriors completed the upset.
   "Football is a game of inches and life is a game of inches," said Byrd. "And we got beat on a couple of fourth and twos and fourth and ones. They stuffed us two or three times and it didn't keep the drives alive."
   Many of the Cloudland seniors felt that not being able to play longer in games and overlooking their playoff run hurt them Friday night. The Highlander starting unit averaged 2.5 quarters of action in each game during the regular season.
   "I guess we should've taken it one game at a time like we did as sophomores," said Christman. "We did it and we went to the state championship. This time we were just expecting to make it, we didn't take it one game at a time."
   "I really think (not playing longer in games) hurt us," he said. "Like I said before, playing a half in a ball game doesn't compare to playing a full game."
   Said Aaron Stocton: "We worked hard but all it comes down to is playing half of a game. It hurt us bad. We worked, we thought we worked on the right things. But if you don't come up against teams as you see later on down the season and in playoffs, it's hard to cope with it when the time comes."
   It's a hard loss for the seniors to take, but they have nothing to be ashamed of in their stellar high school career.
   "They've got a lot to be proud of," Lunsford added. "They've got to keep their heads up, but there's only one team standing at the end of the year."
   Said Christman: "I don't know how to take it. That was the last time I'll ever put on a Highlander jersey."
   Cloudland linemen Chris 'The Bus' Sheets, Jake Gibbs, Zach Cook, Jeff Lunsford and Steven Frye, who was hurt early in the game, all gave a great effort throughout the season.
   Bebo Hughes, Dewayne Campbell and Clint Steiner are also among the players who didn't gain enough credit for the hard work they put into their careers at Cloudland.
   As with every other game this past season, the last senior to walk out of the Cloudland locker room Friday night was Byrd. After his last ball game in a 'Lander football jersey he held his emotions inside.
   "It hurts. It hurts like hell," he said. "I enjoyed playing with these seniors, they are a great bunch of guys on and off the field. I thank them for the memories."
   "I would like to thank Coach Lunsford for just giving me the opportunity to play when he caught so much slack over me playing as a freshman. I thank him for sticking his chest out for me and being strong."
   "I'd like to thank everybody in the community for their support and love and I'd like to thank my family for standing strong through all of these troubled times."
   When Zach Cook was asked a question about the end of the season he responded with pride in the hard-fought game he played:
   "It's a tough question to ask somebody," he said. "I'm so sore, I can barely stand up. If I knew it was going to be over, I would've still played the same ball game I did an hour ago."