By Keeli Parkey
For a half, the Unicoi County High School football team (1-3, 1-0) gave one of the best teams in Northeast Tennessee a run for its money; however, the early minutes of the second half prevented an upset.
The Blue Devils fell, 33-13, to the undefeated Happy Valley Warriors (3-0, 1-0) on Friday, Sept. 8, in non-league play at Gentry Stadium in Erwin.
“I thought our guys really battled,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “We knew going in that they very well may be the best team on our schedule. I thought that we showed that we can play with anyone – if that sort of focus and execution that we had early is there.”
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Blue Devils were forced to punt. The Warriors took over possession, but on second down the Blue Devil defense forced a fumble to take over at midfield.
On first down, freshman quarterback Brock Thompson – in just his second career start – hit junior Brett Strother for a 27-yard gain. Then, on second-and-13, Thompson hit Strother on a screen pass for a gain of 23 yards to give UCHS the ball on the 1-yard line. Strother then rushed for the touchdown. The extra point attempt missed and UCHS led 6-0 with just over 7 minutes to play in the opening quarter.
“I thought the forced fumbles we caused were big as they set up one of our scores,” Rice said. “The screen pass Brett had from Brock was a huge play for us.”
The Warriors then orchestrated a 73-yard, 10-play drive that culminated in a 13-yard run touchdown run by Dylan McKeehan. Michael Harrah converted the point-after attempt and Happy Valley took a 7-6 lead with 2 minutes to play in the quarter.
The Blue Devils were forced to punt on their next possession. The Warriors then began another scoring drive – this time from 63 yards out, ending in a 3-yard run by Will Tittle. The pointer-after missed and Happy Valley led 13-6 with 8 minutes to play in the half.
On the next Blue Devil drive, Happy Valley intercepted a pass to retake possession; however, two plays later, the Blue Devil defense forced another fumble and recovered it to start another offensive drive with just under 4 minutes to play before halftime. UCHS reached the red zone, but couldn’t score and Happy Valley took over on downs.
Even though they trailed 13-6 going into the break, the Blue Devils played a very solid first half, Rice said.
“Our guys were ready to play,” he said. “We felt good about their preparation and the game plan we had going in.”
It was the opening minutes of the second half that doomed the Blue Devils Friday night. The Warriors took the kickoff and put together another scoring drive, which ended in a vtouchdown run by quarterback Brayden Sams, and added a 2-point conversion to lead 21-6.
Needing to answer, the Blue Devils were stopped by a turnover that gave Happy Valley the ball in the red zone. Sams scored for the Warriors again, but the point-after attempt missed, for a 27-6 lead with just over 7 minutes to play in the third quarter.
“The most significant play had to be the kickoff they recovered on us, because that’s the play that put it out of reach for us,” Rice said. “We went from being down 7 to 21 in about 2 minutes. You just can’t have sequences like that against great teams.
“They just wore us out up front as the game went on,” Rice continued. “They have a veteran offensive line from a team that went to the state quarterfinals last year. I thought when they recovered the kickoff in the third quarter is when we really lost our momentum. But our guys never laid down, they never quit and that’s something we have been preaching since day one.”
In the fourth quarter, the Warriors scored again on a 2-yard run by Dakota Cochran. The Blue Devils added their final score on a 24-yard pass from Thompson to Troy Podvin and an extra point by Martin Porras.
Despite the loss, there were several bright spots for UCHS in the game, according to Rice.
“Owen (Nicholson) is still playing like a man possessed,” Rice added. “I think he had 19 tackles Friday night. He and Brett made some big catches for us on the scoring drive. They both really put a lot of pressure on defenses because anytime it’s in their hands they can score.
“Brock played extremely well. That is asking a whole lot out of a freshmen to step in and run an offense against a defense like that and I thought he did tremendous. I also thought Noah White had a good night on defense and with the kick return. He has been battling a nagging calf injury almost all year, but I thought he showed how good he can be with 8 tackles and a big kickoff return.”
The Blue Devils had 156 total yards of offense – 129 in the air and 27 on the ground. Happy Valley had 271 total yards – 28 in the air and 243 on the ground.
Thompson was 9-16 for 129 yards and a touchdown. Strother had 4 catches for 64 yards and 9 carries for 12 yards and a touchdown. Nicholson had 3 catches for 35 yards. Podvin had 2 catches for 30 yards and a touchdown. Kody Lewis carried the ball 8 times for 23 yards. Hunter Higgins forced one of the fumbles by UCHS.
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The Blue Devils have faced some of their toughest competition during the first four weeks of the season, according to Rice.
“We knew our schedule was top heavy for sure,” he added. “We made it that way on purpose, to help us prepare for our region games. I think we are getting better each week, and we have some guys, who haven’t played a lot of football, who are really starting to figure it out. I think that we have the chance to go on a pretty good run here down the stretch. We are 1-0 in the region, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s all that really matters. We have to get this one this week.”
UCHS will host Claiborne, a region opponent, on homecoming night on Friday, Sept. 15, at Gentry Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
“They are a good football team,” Rice said of Claiborne. “Coach (Nathan) Medlin does a good job down there and they run a tough offense to defend. We know they are going to be motivated and are going to give us a great effort, but we have to match their intensity.”