KINGSPORT — The football programs at Dobyns-Bennett and Sullivan South will be facing virtually the same test on Friday.
D-B (8-0, 4-0), after rising to No. 1 in the Associated Press 5A state poll earlier in the week, is at a crossroads.
The Indians, seeking an unbeaten season and top billing in Region 1, may have a challenge at Campbell County (4-4, 1-3) before closing out their Big East Conference schedule next week against arch-rival Science Hill (6-2, 3-1).
Likewise, South (8-0, 5-0) has been ranked No. 3 in the 4A state poll for several weeks and must travel to Elizabethton (4-4, 3-2), a sleeping giant in the Mountain Lakes Conference race.
This comes one week before the Rebels close out their season against Tennessee High (6-2, 5-0), the team they must beat to win a fourth consecutive conference title outright.
Both coaches, Graham Clark of D-B and Stacy Carter of South, have warned their squads against possible overconfidence.
D-B’s first-place ranking developed after Farragut was riddled last week by Ooltewah 31-3. It puts a bull’s-eye on those maroon-and- grey uniforms as the Tribe becomes the hunted instead of the hunter.
“I like being up there,’’ Clark said, “but the No. 1 ranking is about like putting perfume on a hog.’’
Except for versatile back Justin Sylvester and offensive guard Cody Fuller, Clark gives the Indians a clean bill of health. Sylvester’s sprained ankle is gradually healing and it’s hoped he’ll be back for the Science Hill game. Fuller has an undisclosed injury. “It’ll be a game-night decision on him,” Clark said.
D-B is led offensively by tailback Chris Sensabaugh, quarterback Jamie Crawford and tight end Ashlon Adams.
Sensabaugh has rushed for 892 yards and seven touchdowns. Crawford has completed 65 of 98 passes for 1,041 yards and 10 TDs and kept the ball for 374 yards and nine TDs. Adams has caught 32 passes for 603 yards and six TDs.
Campbell County’s big guns are fullback Tyler Albright, a 1,000-yard rusher, and quarterback Phillip Wells who’s carried the ball 560 yards and passed for another 555.
Wells’ twin brother, Stephen, is a slotback. Both line up defensively as cornerbacks. They are the sons of Campbell County coach DeWayne Wells, who traditionally has a defensive game plan that gives D-B fits.
The Cougars are an experienced, senior-laden team that will lose 28 players by graduation. “They have a lot of speed,’’ Clark said. “The film we saw of them playing Sevier County indicated they’re about as good as anybody we’ve seen.’’
Mistakes sent Campbell County reeling last week in a 26-7 loss to Science Hill, which led 20-0 in the first quarter. Two blocked punts and a fumble into the end zone were negatives the Cougars couldn’t overcome.
“You can’t overlook that bunch,’’ Clark said. “Campbell County has a big fireworks show before every home game that can be a distraction. We’re expecting a fight to the end.’’
D-B and Campbell County are running 1-2 in the conference in both offense and defense.
South is averaging 47.1 points per game. Its offensive leaders are halfback Taylor Fletcher, who’s gained an even 1,000 yards; quarterback Bradley Davenport, who’s completed 68 of 109 passes for 1,037 yards and 14 TDs; and wide receiver Kaleb Kitzmiller, who has 33 catches for 550 yards and eight TDs.
“Elizabethton has talented athletes,’’ Carter said. “Most of our scores through the years have been close. (The Cyclones) are especially tough to beat over there. They live off big plays. We can’t afford to let them get momentum on us.
“Last week’s defensive effort against North was by far our best of the year. We need to keep that going.’’
The Cyclones have speedy runners in Derek Carr and Cody Forbes, as well as a slippery quarterback in Ryan Thomas, who runs and throws with equal facility.
Both D-B and South have already qualified for the TSSAA playoffs and aspire to go as region champions.
Unicoi County (0-8, 0-4) at Sullivan North (6-2, 3-2)
While Unicoi County looks for its first win, North will be trying to get back on track after a lopsided loss to South. “In high school you never know until the kickoff how a team will respond,’’ North coach Robbie Norris said. “Our kids are resilient – they’ve been through a lot. We’ve had a good week of practice but we’re banged up.’’
North’s Eric Pearcy has rushed 113 times for 542 yards, scored 48 points and completed 54 percent of his passes. Matt Washington is one of the Mountain Lakes Conference’s most dangerous kick returners.
Unicoi County has a trio of standouts at the skill positions. Halfback Ethan Bennett has rushed for 608 yards, quarterback D.W. Whitson has completed 79 passes for 1,1442 yards and 11 TDs, and wide receiver Corey Headley has caught 22 passes for 44 yards and seven TDs while doubling as a running back.
“(The Blue Devils) aren’t lacking in talent,’’ Norris said. “Whitson is a wonderful player. Headley is fantastic. Bennett was a second-team all-conference player last year.’’
North has an excellent chance at reaching the playoffs and could place as high as third in Region 1 if the right pieces fall into place the next two games.
Daniel Boone (4-4, 2-3) at David Crockett (2-6, 1-4)
The Musket Bowl for many years has drawn coverage in USA Today because of the namesakes of its participants. The game has always been a Washington County showcase regardless of the teams’ successes.
This one promises to be a physical battle. “Crockett has really been playing well,’’ Boone coach Jeremy Jenkins said. “We expect them to give their best effort. We also need to have our best effort. How well we block and tackle could determine our fate. It’s a big game, a big rivalry. To make the playoffs we have to get by Crockett and Morristown East and hope that Volunteer beats Cherokee next week.’’
Crockett has a more experienced squad, with 24 seniors. Boone’s roster includes 18 seniors.
Tennessee High (6-2, 5-0) at Sullivan Central (1-7, 1-4)
Some things are impossible to simulate in practice. Keenan Shepard’s speed qualifies as one. The Tennessee High flash has given Mountain Lakes coaches many sleepless nights for two seasons. “We’ve been working on ways to slow him down,’’ Central coach Scott Nelson said. “He’s pretty quick. You have to pursue fast and get to him before he gets started.’’
Shepard is the MLC’s leading ground gainer with 1,126 yards on 188 carries and No. 2 scorer with 84 points. His longest run has been 73 yards and he’s scored 14 TDs. THS quarterback Tyler Harmon has completed 46 of 74 passes for 633 yards.
Central’s team morale is up and Nelson feels the Cougars are steadily improving. “We’re doing some good things,’’ he said. “Last week’s loss to Johnson County looked a little different on paper than it actually was. We made a couple of crucial mistakes that hurt us.’’
The Cougars’ marquee players on offense are Carl Roberts, Drew McLaughlin and Austin Box. Roberts, the QB, has completed 56 of 115 passes for 941 yards and scored eight TDs himself. McLaughlin, a halfback, has rushed for 686 yards and six TDs and stood out as a kick returner. Box, a wideout, has made 17 catches for 261 yards.
Volunteer (2-6, 2-3) at Morristown West (4-4, 3-2)
Caught in a rebuilding season, Volunteer coach Scott Rider and his staff continue to work with the diligence of championship contenders. The Falcons have played a backbreaking schedule, but are still upbeat as the season winds down. They’ll be taking on a program that’s been one of the state’s most successful ones over the last decade. “Morristown West is a mighty good football team,’’ Rider said. “We still could make the playoffs by winning our last two games but would still need some help. Luke Cradic, our quarterback, has passed for 1,200-plus yards. We have no big numbers at tailback — we’ve struggled there. We must continue to have a good mix of running and passing. The pass receiving has been spread around. Our top three guys there are Robbie Clemons, Aaron Bennett and R.J. Williams.’’
Rider has been pleased with the gradual improvement of left tackle Justin Ward and left guard Ethan Wood.
The Falcons will be chasing a pair of speed merchants in Terrell Fredricks, the fastest back in the Five Rivers Conference jamboree, and J.J. Goforth.
“(The Trojans) aren’t as big in the offensive line as they have been in years past,’’ Rider said, “but they have a lot of depth (85 players). They’re always running fresh guys at you. In that respect, they haven’t changed much. They’re obviously better than that 4-4 record.”
CLINTWOOD — Months ago, Clintwood coach Rick Mullins nicely summed up the implications of Friday’s showdown between J.I. Burton (8-0, 4-0) and the Greenwave (7-1, 3-0) at Ralph Cummins Stadium.
There are two Region D champions. There are two Group A state champions. There is only one Lonesome Pine District champion.
“It seems we’ve had a big game every week we’ve played this season. But this is as big as it gets,” Mullins said.
Clintwood tied for a share of the crown in 1999. The last time the Greenwave won it outright was in 1987. The Raiders, meanwhile, are working on making it four straight.
Both squads are a lock for the Division 1 playoffs, but Friday’s game has seeding implications. Clintwood has a 22.9 power rating while Burton has a 22.8.
Raider coach Jimbo Adams and his team are entirely focused on the moment at hand. They’ll let the math take care of itself.
“Friday night is for the Lonesome Pine District championship. We win it, we’re it, period,” Adams said. “That’s where it’s at. It is what it is. As far as we’re concerned, this is for all the marbles.”
Despite losing to Clintwood in last year’s Region D championship game, Norton remains in the midst of one of the most impressive unbroken dynastic runs of any in Southwest Virginia football history. This year’s squad enjoys continuity with past teams in many respects, but has fixed its own unique stamp on the Burton football tradition.
Running the double wing offense, the Raiders have had exceptional speed at slotback before. But Jaycob Coleman (57-1159, 12 TDs) and Martinez Miles (52-984, 17 TDs) also boast unprecedented strength and physicality. Both can flat-out fly. Both can knock your head off. Both are beasts on the defensive side of the ball.
Coleman, a senior, is being courted by Marshall, William & Mary, Richmond and several Division II programs. Miles, a junior, is already on Virginia Tech’s recruiting radar.
“The slotbacks are unbelievable athletes. We don’t have anybody in practice that can give us a look at that kind of speed,” Mullins said. “You can be in good position against them and if you don’t play it just right, they can go 70 yards every time they touch the football.”
Clintwood also has its talked-about athletes. Running back Chris Robinson, who has rushed for 1,028 yards and 21 touchdowns, has attracted interest from James Madison. Two-way tackle Russell Hull is probably Southwest Virginia’s best lineman, while linebacker Alec Osborne is a defensive playmaker far out of proportion to his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame.
Adams, for one, is one of Osborne’s biggest admirers. But he predicts the ultimate difference-makers in Friday’s clash will be players whose names aren’t as well known.
“All the big-name players are going to make big plays,” Adams said. “The question is, how is everybody around them going to play? Are they going to play with intensity?”
Gate City (7-1, 3-0) at Lee High (2-5, 1-1)
This might ordinarily be a good time for the Generals to lay an ambush. Unfortunately for Lee High, the Blue Devils should be on high alert after last week’s 13-0 win over Powell Valley — and Gate City has a Clinch Mountain District championship to clinch with a win here. Blue Devils RB Joseph Vaughn (95-706, 7 TDs) continues to impress while QB Tihlee Anderson — who has passed for 495 yards and three TDs while rushing for 436 yards and nine scores — continues to find a way to take two steps forward for every step back. Generals RB Tyler Graham (134-768, 6 TDs) has led the squad in rushing for six of the last seven games. QB Tyler Mullins has passed for 418 yards and four touchdowns, rushing for 301 yards and three TDs. Gate City boasts the highest Division 2 power rating in Region D (22.3) and is a good bet to be the playoffs’ top seed.
Pound (3-5, 1-2) at Powell Valley (3-5, 0-3)
Look past the overall identical records and the similarities end. Whether at RB, QB or on the defensive side of the football, Myron Pinkston is playing some impressive football. He has rushed for 704 yards and passed for 131 and two scoring strikes. RB Jordan Martin has rushed for 412 yards. Last week, Wildcats RB Aaron Balthis accounted for 246 yards offense — 121 yards rushing and 125 yards receiving. The Vikings are still in the mix for postseason play with a 15.9 rating in Division 2.
Appalachia (1-7, 0-3) at J.J. Kelly (6-2, 2-2)
This game has been moved to Thursday night due to Friday’s forecast for rain. Clintwood took a little starch out of the Indians last week, but Kelly — certainly playoff-bound with a 20.1 rating — should provide stiff competition for the Bulldogs. Indians RB Jordan Bates has rushed for 788 yards and nine TDs while Devan Sproles has been good for 488 yards and five scores. RBs Tyler Barker and Cody Carter pace the Bulldog rushing attack.
St. Paul (2-6, 1-3) at Rye Cove (3-5, 2-2)
Despite being one game away from arch-rival Twin Springs, the Eagles probably aren’t looking past the Deacons. Steven Vikara leads Rye Cove in rushing (88-613, 9 TDs) and receiving (13-240, 2 TDs) and has even thrown a couple of TD passes. St. Paul QB Tyler Phillips (1,040 yards, 7 TDs passing, 309 yards rushing) and RB Denver Fritz (499 yards, 5 TDs) lead the Deacons offense.
Thomas Walker (4-4, 3-1) at Twin Springs (5-3, 4-0)
The Titans can clinch the Cumberland District championship outright by beating the Pioneers. Thomas Walker can earn a shot at a share of the title by holding fast at Nickelsville. Twin Springs rode a balanced attack to victory against Castlewood last week. QB Michael Salyer, RB Adam Gillenwater and WR Kris Jordan are the tip of the Titans’ offensive iceberg. RBs Zach Hensley and Jamie Twigg fuel the Pioneers.
Holston (7-2, 3-2) at Castlewood (6-2, 3-2)
Despite a solid 17.0 rating in the Division 1 standings, Castlewood needs to keep winning — and Twin Springs needs to start losing — for the Blue Devils to find a way to slip into the playoffs. Thanks to a Black Diamond District title, Haysi (18.6 rating) will occupy one of the Division 1 slots remaining after Clintwood and J.I. Burton finish jockeying for position.
Ervinton (0-8) at Twin Valley (0-8)
A slew of “300” DVDs are probably warm to the touch this week in Dickenson and Buchanan counties. Good luck, and may the best team win.