By Keeli Parkey
After struggling in the first two weeks of the season, the Unicoi County High School football team is back on track.
On Friday, Sept. 13, the Blue Devils (2-2, 1-0) dominated Happy Valley (3-1) in a victory at Gentry Stadium. It was the program’s first win over the Warriors since 2013 and the second consecutive victory for UCHS in as many weeks.
“It was a great win,” Rice said. “Not just because we were 1-2 or they were 3-0, but because of how our guys played. They played inspired for four quarters. It was great to see them play like we know they are capable of.”
The Blue Devils were slow coming out of the gate last week – committing two turnovers on their first two possessions. Luckily, the UCHS defense rose to the occasion and erased the mistakes of the offense.
“They both were fluke plays,” Rice said of the turnovers. “You watch the film and we drop an easy pass and the ball gets knocked loose on the play-action. Sometimes you have things like that happen to you. I was very proud of how we responded to those – our defense came right out and got two huge stops after each of those. Football a lot of times is less about what actually happens and more about how you respond to it.”
The Blue Devils put together their first scoring drive of the game late in the first quarter and continuing in the second quarter. Starting on their own 4-yard-line, it took 13 plays for UCHS to find the end zone, which they did on a run by senior Kody Lewis. Miquel Vasquez then converted the point-after attempt (PAT) for a 7-0 UCHS lead with 11:49 to play in the first half.
Essential to the first scoring drive, as it was to the entire game, was the Blue Devils’ ability to successfully run the ball against the Warriors.
“Running the football and stopping the run on defense is how you win games,” Rice said. “Friday night was a great example of that. Our offensive linemen really did a great job of getting a push and our backs had all kinds of room to get into space.”
The Blue Devils then held Happy Valley scoreless on two possessions. The next UCHS scoring drive began late in the second quarter at their own 47-yard-line. The Blue Devils marched down the field thanks to successful carries by both Lewis and senior Diego Diaz.
“It was great to see so many guys have success running the ball, especially Diego,” Rice said. “He is a senior who shows up to work every single day and never complains; that’s the kind of young man I want to coach.”
Lewis found his way into the end zone with 16 seconds to play in the first half. Vasquez again converted the PAT and UCHS held a 14-0 lead at the break.
Both the Blue Devils and the Warriors were unsuccessful on their first possessions of the second half. However, UCHS took control of the game in the third quarter. Diaz scored on a 26-yard run, then on the next Blue Devil possession, Tracy Vanover recovered the ball in the end zone for another score.
UCHS held a 28-0 lead after three quarters.
The final Blue Devil score of the game culminated with a touchdown carry by quarterback Brock Thompson after an 11 play, 80-yard UCHS drive.
As he had been the previous week at North Greene, Vasquez was perfect on PATs. His steadiness will be important for UCHS as the season progresses, according to Rice.
“He has done a tremendous job,” Rice said of Vasquez. “Caleb Swinehart and Tanner VanHoy have done a tremendous job as well, snapping and holding. There are a lot of moving parts to the kicking game, that’s why a lot of high school teams struggle with it. Coach (Brandon) Adams (the UCHS special teams coordinator) does a fantastic job with all of our special teams.”
The Blue Devils won the game, 35-0.
Rice said he was proud of the play of his defense.
“I feel like it was a collective effort,” he added. “It very well may be the best defensive effort we have had in my three years as a head coach. That’s a credit to our kids and defensive staff’s preparation. Coach (Jason) Hensley and our defensive coaches had a great game plan going in.”
For their head coach, it was how the team approached Friday’s game that made the difference.
“The mindset of our guys and their approach to the game was important,” Rice said. “They were locked in all week and went out Friday and executed at a very high level. If we can play like that each week, we will be a tough team to beat.”
Success at North Greene the previous week aided in the win over Happy Valley.
“Winning produces winning,” Rice said. “I think it becomes a habit. I think we are at a point now in our program, even including those first two games, where our guys expect to win. That’s really important. Hopefully, we can build off of the momentum we have created.”
The Blue Devils had 453 total yards of offense against the Warriors. Of that total, 403 were on the ground. Lewis had 19 carries for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diaz had 21 carries for 186 yards and 1 touchdown. Isaiah Smith had 5 carries for 25 yards. Thompson had 4 carries and 1 touchdown. He also completed 3 passes for 50 yards. Peyton Whitson had 2 catches for 40 yards. Tanner VanHoy had 1 catch for 10 yards.
On defense, the Blue Devils held Happy Valley to 65 total yards. Roby Lemmon led the Blue Devils with 8 tackles. Lane Garland had 5 tackles. Thompson, L.J. Mitchell, VanHoy and Robbie O’Dell had 3 tackles each.
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The Blue Devils will return to Region 1-AAA play on Friday, Sept. 20, when they host the Claiborne Bulldogs (2-2, 0-1).
“They are always tough,” Rice said of Claiborne. “They are 2-2, so they have had some success just like us. We will have to have another good week of preparation and we will have to be sound defensively. It’s a region game, so it’s extremely important.”
UCHS will also celebrate a special annual event this week.
“This week is Homecoming, so we would like to encourage and welcome everyone to come and support these young men on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Gentry Stadium,” Rice said.