Eagles reject Highlanders' title bid

By Travis Brown
STAR STAFF

   MURFREESBORO -- An age old coaching adage says, "Leave everything on the field, and if it's not enough hold your head up."
   That was the case Friday afternoon as the Cloudland Highlanders fell to the Ezell-Harding Eagles 63-26 in the BlueCross Bowl, the state's Class 1-A championship game.
   In a contest characterised by offense, the 'Landers (13-2) simply could not stop the powerful Eagles. Then again they would have needed the national guard to so.
   Cloudland skipper Mike Lunsford was impressed with the talented Eagle attack.
   "I know we gave everything we had from start to finish," Lunsford said. "The plays they made were because they are super athletes."
   Quarterback J.P. Shelly and his host of talented receivers totaled four touchdowns and 312 yards through the air. Despite the offensive success of the Eagles (15-0), the 'Landers were able to move the ball as well, amassing 409 yards total offense while putting 26 points on the board.
   The 'Landers took the opening kickoff but were unable to acquire a first down, and punted it away to the Eagles. The Highlander defense would soon return the favor however; as on the first down, receiver Erik Davis fumbled the ball, and Brandon Odom recovered for Cloudland.
   On the ensuing drive the Highlanders got on the scoreboard. After a 42-yard strike to Jon Gibbs, Benfield would later run it in from three yards out to give Cloudland an early 6-0 edge.
   "You could tell it wasn't going to end 6-0," Lunsford said. "You could tell that real easy."
   Ezell-Harding would answer in convincing fashion as it took the football at their own 34 yard-line, and marched 69 yards in seven plays to take the lead 7-6. Antoine Owens hit paydirt from two yards out on fourth-and-goal.
   The first quarter would end without another score, but the second quarter was bad news for Cloudland. The first play of the second quarter was a 19-yard touchdown strike from Shelly to Davis.
   The Eagles added another touchdown -- a 20-yard pass from Shelly to Michael Brideau -- with 5:24 remaining in the period to take a 21-6 lead.
   Cloudland did get on the scoreboard again before halftime on a nifty 41-yard run by Mark Byrd, only to see the Eagles add another touchdown (Kyle Todd, 8-yard run) 16 seconds before halftime.
   With momentum against them, the Highlanders came out in the third period looking to retake the emotion, and get back into the football game.
   The third quarter was all Eagles, however, as they posted four unanswered touchdowns in the quarter, and were simply unstoppable as they picked up 213 yards of offense in the third stanza alone.
   Davis started this explosion with a 62-yard TD run on the first play of the second half.
   Cloudland refused to take the loss laying down as the backfield tandem of Derrick and Jason Birchfield added a pair of touchdowns to keep the contest respectable.
   Derrick was the leading rusher for the 'Landers in the contest as he compiled 115 yards on just 12 carries. Byrd also went over the 100-yard mark, rushing 20 times for 109 yards, while Benfield gained 92 yards on 22 attempts.
   The contest was a bittersweet moment for the 'Landers as they were the first team in Carter County to make it to the state finals in the modern era.
   Despite the heartbreaking loss, Lunsford was proud of his kids.
   "They played as hard as they could, I'm so proud of my kids, but we were just outmanned."
   Ezell-Harding broke three state records and equaled three others in the offensive showcase, an offense that was aided by the speed and quickness advantages of playing on turf.
   State-runner up status may feel bad for now, but this team has reached new heights for Cloudland football. This team has proven that Carter County football can be successful later in the playoffs.
   With time these wounds will heal, and the 'Landers can celebrate one of the greatest seasons in area history. Congratulations on a fine season.