KINGSPORT — When one middle school closed and another shut down its football program a few years later, Sullivan North was left without a feeder system.
Incoming freshmen had to learn fundamentals from scratch. The head coach’s position became one that few people desired.
Robbie Norris, a former North player and Dobyns-Bennett assistant coach, accepted the challenge.
Norris made it plain there would be no surrender. Instead of being dead in the water, North’s program is on the upswing.
The Golden Raiders are unbeaten, having outpointed two opponents by a combined score of 43-6, and will be favored tonight against Rye Cove.
Norris has rallied the troops and given the community hope of being staunchly competitive again.
“It’s us against the world,’’ Norris said. “We take that approach. There are similarities between our program and Appalachia’s. Both schools like a brute-force style of play. Appalachia’s offense is a split-T and ours is a double wing — which is a first cousin to the T-formation.
“We’re usually picked to place last or next to last in our conference. Our coaches hear negatives outside the community, but we’re not going to quit. We intend to compete. Our kids have a good time playing.’’
Sacrifices had to made. “Everybody had to put their egos on the shelf,’’ Norris said. “We have a former quarterback playing tackle and a converted tight end/fullback at tackle. The team’s attitude is exceptional. There is no pressure here. These boys just turn loose and play aggressively.’’
North has an enrollment of just 650 and is likely to be 2A under a new TSSAA alignment next year. Meanwhile, a waiver was obtained to allow Ketron Middle School’s seventh-graders to play with North’s eighth-graders. Thus far, the Raider yearlings are 2-0.
“The community is excited after feeling like it was under attack for a few years,’’ Norris said. “We had a huge crowd for the Central game. The players enjoy coming to practice.’’
The Raiders’ big offensive gun is 6-foot-2, 210-pound fullback Hunter McReynolds, who’s rushed for 190 yards in two games despite sustaining an injury against Central. His playing status for the Rye Cove game is questionable.
“Anytime you lose a player, it hurts,’’ Norris said. “We just plug somebody else in and keep on rolling.’’
North defeated Rye Cove 36-12 last year in the two schools’ first encounter.
This one should be close if McReynolds doesn’t suit up. Brad Baker and Doug Cook would divide time at fullback in his absence.
Baker, a linebacker, has led the defensive charge — along with free safety Matt Washington and nose guard Mitchell Steadman. Tackles Brandon Black and Cody Blakley have provided senior leadership.
The protective blocking of Black, Jacob Perkins, Steven Hartsoe, Jacob Hartsoe and McKenzie Baker have given quarterback Eric Pearcy and the wingbacks room and time to operate. Cornerback/wide receiver Sterling Throp has added spark to the team.
The Rye Cove game got rescheduled from Friday because rain was being anticipated.
Rye Cove has an outstanding backfield with Teddy Parker, T.J. Barnette, Steven Vikara and Chris Lane.
The Eagles lost their opener to powerful J.I. Burton 43-6. North shocked David Crockett in its opener 34-6 and blanked Central 9-0 last week.
NET preview capsules
Dobyns-Bennett (2-0) at Bearden (2-0)
D-B, ranked No. 3 in the 5A Associated Press state poll, will be seeking revenge for an 8-7 loss that knocked the Indians out of the Big East Conference title a year ago. Bearden reached the state semifinals. Bearden’s top players are running back Devrin Young (5-8, 150), who’s gained 203 of his team’s 268 yards rushing; quarterback Ryan Potter, who’s completed 20 of 37 passes; Tanner Fine, who’s had 22 tackles in two games, and defensive end Dillon Walker, the Bulldogs’ third-leading tackler. D-B again will be without tailback Chris Sensabaugh (elbow injury). His replacement, Justin Sylvester, may join him on the sidelines. Sylvester suffered a sprained ankle last week and is questionable for the Bearden game after testing the ankle on Wednesday. Mark Erwin, James Brown and Jason Michael may fill in for Sylvester. Sylvester is D-B’s top scorer with 30 points and also the leading rusher with 214 yards in 27 carries. Fleet QB Jamie Crawford has accounted for 305 yards, keeping 19 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns and completing 10 of 12 passes for 162 yards and two TDs. Ashlon Adams has six catches for 84 yards. The Tribe’s defense is led by Zach Fleming with 16 tackles, James Templeton with 12 and Craig Carter with 11.
Unicoi County (0-2) at Sullivan South (1-0)
South, winner of three Mountain Lakes Conference crowns in succession, is going after a fourth. The Rebels, ranked No. 5 in the 4A poll, have a blockbuster ball carrier in Taylor Fletcher, who rushed 31 times for 196 yards in a 28-19 win over Science Hill. South’s line is anchored by guard Hunter Beedle. QB Bradley Davenport turned some heads with his debut performance, keeping 15 times for 79 yards and hitting on 13 of 22 passes for 128 yards. Kaleb Kitzmiller has five catches for 72 yards. Unicoi County was beaten by South Greene and Happy Valley. The Blue Devils’ top performer is QB D.W. Whitson.
Cocke County (0-1) at Volunteer (0-1)
Volunteer has a score to settle. The slow-starting Falcons were defeated 20-19 by Cocke County in their second game last year. Volunteer dropped its 2008 opener to Sullivan East and is looking to get on track against a Fighting Cocks team that is under new coach Casey Kelly. Running back Jordan Keller is their top runner. Volunteer’s offense starts with new QB Luke Cradic. Cody Riner, Isaac Hutchins, Cody Hopkins and Devon Rogers are sharing the rushing load. Cocke County was defeated by Seymour in its first game.
Cherokee (1-1) at Morristown West (1-1)
The Chiefs find themselves in an underdog role facing the school that has been the most dominant in Region 2 over the last 10 years. Sean Jones operates the Trojans’ offense from the QB position. M-West’s top runners are J.J. Goforth and Five Rivers Jamboree dash champion Terrell Fredricks. Cherokee’s marquee players are running backs Landon House and Coleman Elliott and tackle Daniel Littleton.
Daniel Boone (1-0) at Greeneville (0-1)
Boone has outscored Greeneville 32-0 in the last two games, winning 18-0 and 14-0. If the oddsmakers are correct, it will be a major upset if the Trailblazers win this time. The Greene Devils are loaded, with Jordan Greenway at QB and an array of running backs. Boone is in the midst of a rebuilding process.
Sullivan East (1-0) at Tennessee High (0-1)
That first on-the-field victory over Tennessee High continues to be like an elusive butterfly for East. The Patriots were awarded a forfeit over the Vikings several years ago but they’ve yet to actually beat them. Tennessee High was defeated by Dobyns-Bennett in its opener but the Vikings are expected to break out and challenge South for the Mountain Lakes championship. THS features the running of scatback Keenan Shepard. East’s offensive leaders are QB Tyler Gaby and RB Caleb Looney.
WISE — If someone mentions Southwest Virginia football rivalries, chances are that J.I. Burton vs. J.J. Kelly isn’t the first thing that leaps to mind.
Unless you’re from Norton or Wise.
Raider coach Jimbo Adams points out that this is one of the region’s oldest gridiron rivalries, reaching back into the mid-1920s.
“We have people go to the Norton-Wise game and it’s the only game they’ll see all year,” said Adams, whose squad beat longtime foe Appalachia 57-6 last week. “Around here, this game is as big as it gets.”
The Raiders (2-0, 1-0) have dominated this series in recent years. Adams believes this is probably the best J.J. Kelly squad he’ll have faced since Gabe Barnett led the Indians in a bid for the Lonesome Pine District title under Kevin Saunders in 2001.
Kelly (2-0, 0-0) is unquestionably an improved football team. But coach B.I. Salyers isn’t ready to throw out historical comparisons just yet.
“Oh Lord. Let’s hope it’s a good game,” Salyers said with a chuckle.
“Our kids have worked hard in the offseason and we hope to give them a challenge. They’re definitely faster than us. They’re faster than most people around here. The question is whether we can contain their speed.”
Norton has preposterous speed, to be sure. Last week, the Raiders amassed 432 yards on only 28 carries. With slot backs Jaycob Coleman and Martinez Miles and quarterback Devin Talley, one touch is often all it takes.
“That’s the thing about Norton. They get to the second level or outside and you’re in trouble,” Salyers said. “There’s really no easy answer to solving the problem other than playing fundamental, bend-but-don’t-break defense.”
The rich are likely to get richer before the season is over. Malcolm Pinkston — who left Powell Valley before the season started after an unspecified violation of team rules — is enrolled at J.I. Burton and has been practicing with the Raiders.
Adams said Pinkston won’t set foot on the field for Norton until his eligibility is finalized and beyond dispute. He expects to get official word on Pinkston’s status by next week.
“I believe in giving a kid a second chance, but I won’t jeopardize 40 kids for the sake of one,” Adams said. “I can’t say a negative thing about him. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him in practice.”
The Indians, who shut out Pound 26-0 last week, have given up eight points over two games running a wide variety of looks out of its base 50 monster defense. Salyers noted that this is a fun defense for his squad, which truly enjoys the variety of blitzes the scheme affords.
“They play more defensive fronts than we play offensive sets,” Adams said. “Our linemen will need to know their blocking rules and keep their heads up.”
Devan Sproles, an all-district linebacker, leads the Kelly defense with 14 tackles. Sproles is also the prime mover of Kelly’s Wing-T offense, having churned out 326 yards and four scores at fullback. Indian quarterback Matt Dotson has passed for 236 yards and two touchdowns.
The Indians will likely use their considerable size and strength up front to mount grinding, ball-control drives in hopes of keeping the ball out of Norton’s hands for as long as possible.
Burton’s big offensive playmakers also tend to be big defensive playmakers. Even with the possible absence of linebacker Will Godsey — who is expected to fulfill his placekicking duties — the Raider defense is extremely disruptive.
SW Va. preview capsules
Harlan (0-1) at Lee High (0-1)
After a week off — while we were asleep at the wheel — the Generals look to get back on the winning track against Harlan, which opened with a 36-14 loss to Knott County last week. Generals RB Tyler Graham (23-122) had a solid debut against Powell Valley two weeks ago. Andrew Link — who rushed for 116 yards last week — and Donavhen Middleton lead the Dragons offense.
Powell Valley (1-1) at Richlands (1-1)
Blues QB Joel Elswick passed for 187 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for three more scores in Richlands’ 35-18 win at Honaker last week. Christian Hearl and Blayke Wilson lead the receiving corps. RBs Jordan Martin and Myron Pinkston pace the Vikings offense. Linebacker Dakota Cantrell has been a force to reckon with on the defense.
Appalachia (0-2, 0-1) at Clintwood (2-0, 0-0)
After a 49-7 whacking of county rival Haysi, the Greenwave’s quest for a Lonesome Pine District title begins here. Bulldog QB Tyler Hall and teammates have only begun to grow as a football team. This is basically the same Clintwood squad that drilled an older, more experienced Appalachia squad two consecutive weeks at the end of last season. Clintwood’s Chris Robinson has rushed for 158 yards and scored five touchdowns while seeing an average of nine carries a game for the last two weeks. QB Heath Counts has passed for 247 yards and four scores.
Coeburn (1-1) Pound (0-2)
Here we have the team that left the LPD looking to shake up the Cumberland taking on the coach who shook up the Cumberland before winding up in the LPD. Fresh off a 53-14 win over Ervinton, the Blue Knights have gotten great carries from RB Zack Hayes to go with RB Shane Bright’s proven qualities. Stopping the Blue Knights isn’t Pound’s only quandary. Blanked by J.J. Kelly last week, the Wildcats badly need to keep the chains moving.
St. Paul (1-1, 0-0) at Ervinton (0-2, 0-1)
Last week’s 26-13 win was a timely confidence booster for the Deacons, who begin the Cumberland District slate with a road trip to Nora. QB Tyler Phillips and RB Denver Fritz and versatile Corey Ellis pace The Purple on the offensive side of the football. The plucky, outnumbered Rebels got two touchdowns — including an 85-yard kickoff return — from Jesse Critchfield last week.
Chilhowie (2-0) at Twin Springs (0-2)
The Titans enjoyed some success last week opening it up offensively. Third-year QB Michael Salyer passed for 138 yards and two scores last week, albeit also tossing a pair of interceptions. Twin Springs can’t be accused of dodging stiff non-district competition. The Warriors have collected wins against Group AA Marion (21-14) and Ft. Chiswell (24-2). Alex Russell and Curtis Williams fuel the Chilhowie rushing attack.
Thomas Walker (0-2) at Hancock County (0-2)
Last year, the Pioneers shut out the Indians 35-0. Hancock County football coach Clark Powers was at one time the head basketball coach at Thomas Walker. After sitting out the opener, Thomas Walker’s Zach Hensley rushed for 86 yards and a score last week. Pioneer QB Travis Hall has thrown for 154 yards and two TDs.