'Lander seniors reflect stellar careers

By Wes Holtsclaw

STAR CORRESPONDENT

  CHATTANOOGA -- The Cloudland Highlanders concluded a stellar football season on Friday night, falling prey to yet another Private School.
   Although the Highlanders will have yet another shot next season with the home field advantage in their favor, the seniors on this squad played their last football game during a high school career that saw the class have an impressive 47-5 record.
   Making a run to the Blue Cross Bowl last season, and the state semi-finals this year were two impressive accomplishments for the squad. They began their high school careers with a conference dominating run in 2-A, to becoming one of the states' elite in single A, holding a spot as the top team in the state during the regular season.
   "They were a pretty dang good bunch," said Cloudland coach Mike Lunsford, "I'd take a group of guys like that any year. They've played their tails off. They were a tremendous group, they'd do anything I've asked of them and they gave a complete effort.
   "The private schools are tough, but it really comes down to how these kids deserve better than playing them. We deserved better than that."
   Mark Barnett, Nathaniel Baker, Cole Gouge, Dale Baker, Derrick Birchfield, Jason Birchfield, Gregory Birchfield, Jason Grant, Dustin Sluder, Dustin DeYoung, Jeremy Ward, Josh Johnson, Derrick Guinn, Israel King, Jeff Steiner, and Jimmy Dison were the heart and soul of this years 'Lander team showing a complete effort each week.
   Cole Gouge was a backup quarterback for most of his years of football at Cloudland. With a pair of sharp hands and good feet, Gouge was moved to receiver this season and he caught the final touchdown of his career against Boyd-Buchanan.
   "It means something to me, and to some people it doesn't mean anything," said Gouge referring to playing the private schools. "We wanted to come out with a victory against them. It's been a blast and I wouldn't ask for any better. Everybody played their tails off for us this year. I'd just like to see everybody back one day."
   Barnett had four tremendous years in the Cloudland uniform, and had over 100 tackles in three seasons. He was a good blocking back and leaves a good defensive legacy.
   "It,s been an honor to play with this group of guys," said Barnett, "We gave it our all and we are winners. We were the number one public school in the state.
   "I couldn,t ask for a much better team," said Nathaniel Baker, who played key roles in the defensive and offensive line for the 'Landers, "I wouldn't have it any other way than playing for Cloudland; nobody could pay me to play anywhere else."
   "I'd like to do it again," said Gregory Birchfield, who played solid at cornerback in the blue and gold. "I love everybody there, and I've enjoyed it a lot. I'd rather play at Cloudland than anywhere."
   Although his stellar high school career had come to an end, Cloudland lineman Dale Baker was disappointed about the role of the line during the game afterwards.
   "It's been my life," said he said, "(Boyd-Buchanan) just outplayed us. I could've played better out there, I apologize to the backs and Mark Byrd, we screwed it up."
   Even when the game was in doubt, the center on the squad, Jason Grant, busted his tail in a good performance in the loss. He remembers his time as a Highlander.
   "I believe I,ve been on four of the greatest teams to come through this school," said Grant, "Everything is over for us, and I just have one thing to say to these boys coming up - they better step it up next year and take it."
   As one of the Killer B,s, Derrick Birchfield led Cloudland in rushing yards in the state championship game during his junior season and was a top notch player again.
   "It,s been one of the greatest things," said Derrick Birchfield, "Going 13-0 this year, and going to Murfreesboro last year. It's all been a blast."
   Whether you look at Jason Birchfield's defensive play and rushing or Dustin DeYoungs' excellent special teams play or how Jeff Steiner, Derrick Guinn, Josh Johnson, and Israel King filled in for their team when needed, or seeing Jeremy Ward shoot out into the backfield like a rocket from the defensive position, you always knew the Highlanders would give you memorable moments.
   Although they may remember their final game forever, nobody can take away the memories of their senior season. Being a comeback win over Cherokee, a dogfight with Greenback, or the heavy wins, their will be plenty of positive things to look back on.
   Perhaps Dustin Sluder, who came back onto the team this year to fill in as a good runner and reverse specialist said it best at the very end. Perhaps his words speak volumes for high school seniors each year when their prep days are over.
   "These were the best years I've had in my life," said Sluder, "I just don't want to take this stuff off because I know I'll never put it back on again."