By Keeli Parkey
For the Unicoi County High School football team, last week’s game at West Greene was a tale of two halves. And, fortunately for the Blue Devils (8-1, 4-0), that tale had a happy ending.
“I thought we were very sluggish in the first half, but I thought we came out and really showed some grit and determination in the second half when we needed it the most,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record.
Facing the Buffaloes (2-6, 1-3) on the road on Friday, Oct. 12, Rice’s team found itself in a Region 1-3A battle with its undefeated record on the line. The teams traded blows throughout the first half of a very physical game and went into halftime with the Blue Devils holding a very narrow 14-13 lead. Scoring for UCHS in the first half were Brett Strother and Kody Lewis – both on 10-yard runs. Martin Porras converted the point-after attempt after both scores.
Halftime allowed the Blue Devils to regroup, make adjustments and rally around one another – and it showed in the second half.
“We have played so well for the last five or six weeks, I feel like maybe we were due for a slight lull at some point,” Rice said. “The thing that I liked to see was our guys responded to us challenging them at halftime to come out and play like we knew we were capable of playing. We just talked about small things that were having a big impact on the game. I felt like we cleaned up a lot of those mistakes in the second half.”
The Blue Devils took control of the game in the third quarter.
On the first possession of the second half, UCHS made a point to run the ball – and run it they did on every play. The drive ended with a 7-yard touchdown run by Lewis. Porras again converted the PAT and UCHS took a 21-13 lead.
UCHS forced West Greene into a turnover on downs before putting together another scoring drive by running the football on every play. Despite three penalties against the Blue Devil offense, Rice’s team managed to score on a 22-yard run by Lewis. Another successful PAT by Porras gave UCHS a 28-13 lead with just under 2 minutes to play in the third.
On the first play of the Buffaloes’ next drive, Tanner VanHoy snagged the first of his two interceptions in the game.
“I thought Tanner’s two interceptions were huge,” Rice said. “We have been waiting for him to have a game like that. He’s very capable, and I was very happy for him.”
The Blue Devils didn’t waste the opportunity to add another score. Again running the ball on every play, the drive culminated in Strother’s 4-yard touchdown run. UCHS took a 34-13 lead into the final quarter.
“We just decided until they stopped us running it, we were going to keep doing it,” Rice said. “(Quarterback) Brock (Thompson) did a great job of running our offense. He had a couple tough breaks on some interceptions, but that’s just part of the game. It happens at every level.”
West Greene scored in the fourth quarter with 10 minutes to play in the game, but the Blue Devils quickly responded thanks to Lewis’ 15-yard touchdown run as UCHS came away with a 41-20 victory.
Rice said he was very pleased with how his team bounced back in the second half to secure the win.
“It was good to see,” he added. “Our leadership from some of our older guys was tremendous. Great teams are player driven, not coach driven. I credit a whole lot of our success this year on the leadership from some of these seniors and juniors.”
The UCHS offense had 575 total yards – 536 rushing and 39 passing. Of those rushing yards, Lewis totaled 396 for another standout performance by the junior. Lewis also scored 4 touchdowns bringing his season total to 19.
“Kody was tremendous,” Rice said. “His stats right now are incredible. That’s a credit to our offensive line for the work they are doing up front. They really had their way Friday night with West Greene’s defensive line and that makes calling plays easy when they are winning their individual battles like that.”
Lewis and the players who work hard to block for him are a real asset to the Blue Devils.
“Kody can score anytime the ball is in his hands,” Rice said. “He just needs enough space to get to the second level and he is gone. It’s an unbelievable weapon. Our offensive line, tight end Austin O’Dell, and H-backs Noah White, LJ Mitchell and Lane Garland are workhorses who don’t get enough credit for the job they do opening up holes for our backs.”
Strother scored 2 TDs and had 11 carries for 76 yards.
“I thought Brett’s leadership was about as much as you could ask out of a high school kid,” Rice said. “He had a couple catches, ran the ball extremely well for us and was a force on defense. I can’t say enough about his maturity and leadership.”
Ty Wilson had 4 carries for 54 yards. Gavin Keasling had 1 catch for 16 yards. Peyton Whitson had 1 catch for 10 yards.
The Blue Devil defense held West Greene to 206 total yards. Lewis led the defense with 9 tackles. Noah White had 7 tackles, Strother had 5 and Jacob Schreck had 4. VanHoy had 2 tackles and 2 interceptions.
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The win over West Greene kept the Blue Devils undefeated in Region 1-3A play and in a tie for first place with the Johnson County Longhorns (7-1, 4-0). The Blue Devils and Longhorns will play for a region championship in Erwin on Friday, Oct. 26.
“I think myself, the staff and these guys just want to achieve our goal of a region championship,” Rice said. “We have talked about it since last December and now we are just a week and a couple of days away. It’s surreal in a way. I cannot explain how bad I want us to find a way to get it done for these young men. They deserve the success.”
The win over the Buffaloes also sealed a home playoff game for UCHS, which will be played on Nov. 2 at Gentry Stadium in Erwin. Likely opponents will be Region 2-3A teams Northview Academy or Gatlinburg-Pittman, depending on the results of the final game of the season.
This week is a bye week for the Blue Devils.
“We are going to keep our lifting and running schedule the same to keep our strength and conditioning where we want it, but we will probably back off a little bit this week in practice and try to really work on our fundamentals and heal up a little bit,” Rice said. “I don’t think focus will be a problem this week. Our guys have worked all year to get to this point. It’s exciting for us and the community.”