Don't look for Highlanders to slow down
By TRAVIS BROWN
The Cloudland Highlanders have quite a few things
going for them this upcoming football season. For starters
they are moving down to 1A, which will provide a slightly
The also have the confidence of two Watauga Conference
championships under their belts, and high hopes for their
upcoming campaign. Oh, I forgot to mention... They have talent
growing on trees.
All intangibles aside, the boys in blue and gold
will be literally running over the competition during this
upcoming football season. With some real beef up front and
a vastly improved defense, it's hard not to be optimistic
about the 'Landers.
All eyes will of course be on sophomore quarterback
Mark Byrd, who in his freshman season guided the 'Landers
to an unblemished regular-season mark while compiling some
rather impressive statistics, the least of which was leading
an offense that averaged 429.9 yards and 46.1 points per game.
Some solid off-season training has added 20 pounds
to the 'Landers signal caller, and 'Lander fans can look forward
to seeing more of him throughout this season.
Cloudland skipper Mike Lunsford will be looking
for big things from his sophomore star this season.
"His role is going to expand" said Lunsford.
"It's going to be different for him, because this season he's
In front of Byrd will be one of the best offensive
lines in the entire region, featuring a good deal of size
and tenacity. Keith Buchanan (6-2, 295 Sr.), John Hicks (6-0,
235 Sr.), John Townson (6-2, 295 Sr.), Dale Baker (5-10, 250
Jr.) and Jake Gibbs (6-0, 303 So.) will be called upon to
plow the road for a platoon of Lander backs.
"We will go as far as the offensive line can
take us," said Lunsford. "We've got some guys that will give
us some depth, that will help."
In the backfield for the 'Landers this season
will be a good crop of talent that is still searching for
someone to step up and be the workhorse. For the first part
of the season, the Landers will have staff of backs sharing
The 'Landers will be looking for contributions
from Dustin Sluder (5-9, 160 Jr.) and Derrick Birchfield,
(5-9, 160 Jr.) from the tailback spot, while relying on Mark
Barnett, (6-0, 190 Jr.) and Jason Birchfield, (5-8, 190 Jr.)
to handle the fullback duties.
Lunsford is optimistic about his lightly-tested
"All of those guys give us a different look,"
he said. "We are definitely going to spread it around."
There is little doubt that the 'Landers will
put points on the board, but an experienced and swarming defense
will be looking to throw a couple of shutouts this year as
With an already accomplished defensive unit that
led the Watauga Conference last season -- allowing just over
200 yards a game -- improvement is not an easy thing to ask
for. However, the Lander "D" is looking quite sharp.
With a defensive line that is a mirror image
of the o-line, the ironmen up front will play both ways for
the 'Landers. Buchanan, Hicks, Odom and Townson will spend
time clogging the holes from their d-line spots while keeping
their linebackers free to roam.
Lunsford commented on his front four, saying,
"It's not that we're doing anything different, we are just
playing it with better people."
The linebacking corps will be looking to fill
some shoes this season, as last year's defensive middleman,
Allen Barnett, was lost to graduation. Eager for the opportunity
is younger brother Mark Barnett.
Mark is looking to take over in the run-stuffing
role, while having an improved defensive front ahead of him.
On his flanks will be outside backers Jason Birchfield and
Dakota Benfield (5-9, 155 So.), who also look to play a large
role in Cloudland's defensive scheme.
Depth will also be available at linebacker as
David McKinney (5-8, 145 Jr.) and Dustin Sluder will provide
relief at the position.
One area in which the 'Landers must improve is
pass defense. Statistically, the 'Landers' only flaw during
the previous season was a last-place showing in the pass defense
category, yielding 87.6 yards per game.
Due to these defensive shortcomings, Lunsford
will ask for added performance from Derrick Birchfield and
Gregory Birchfield, slated to see time on the corners. Byrd
will fill the safety position to round out the secondary.
Rounding out the 'Lander attack are the special
teams and the kicking game. Taking care of the punting activities
will be Byrd while placekicking will be between Jason Birchfield
and Mark Barnett.
Overall the outlook for the Landers is exceptional.
However, in classic Lunsford form, the 'Landers captain is
keeping it simple.
"I tell our kids that our main focus should be
to play to our potential," said Lunsford. "I want us to play
as well as we can play."
Two major question marks will remain for the
'Landers during the upcoming season.
- Due to a good number of boys playing both ways,
fourth quarter stamina will be a gray area for the boys in
- Also key injuries could prove disastrous for
the 'Landers, as it would for any 1A program.
That's why they play the games, so to speak,
but one thing is certain for the Cloudland this season. If
these concerns can be answered, the sky is the limit for the