By Keeli Parkey
When the Unicoi County High School football team faced Sullivan East in 2017, the game came down to the final minute with the Patriots winning on a hail mary pass. Last week’s clash between the 3A Blue Devils (2-0) and the 4A Patriots (0-2) was just as dramatic. This time, however, it was UCHS who came out on top.
“I thought it was a great team win against a 4A football team,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice said. “I think we have plenty of things we have to clean up, but I couldn’t be prouder of our guys finding a way to get it done.”
As they had done in their season opener the previous week, the Blue Devils found themselves facing an early deficit on the road in Bluff City on Friday, Aug. 24, as East scored around the 4-minute mark of the first quarter to lead 7-0. Dakota Deel carried the ball into the end zone for the Patriots.
“On one hand, I am glad our guys have that grit and resolve to overcome getting behind early, but on the other it’s certainly not something we want to make a habit of,” Rice said. “We are going to make it a focus this week to have a better start.”
The Patriots ran the ball fairly easily throughout much of the first half, as the Blue Devils made adjustments.
“We knew going in that they were huge up front,” Rice said of East. “I think as the game went on, our conditioning really showed up as they started to wear down some. We just tried to play fast and play our assignments for all four quarters.”
Another issue, particularly in the first half for the Blue Devils, were penalties, including holding calls against the offense that stalled possible scoring drives.
“The holding calls killed us, some of which I am still not sure were holding calls,” Rice said. “Regardless, they called them so we have to make that a focus moving forward. I think if we don’t get a couple of those holding calls in the first half, I feel like we would have gone into the half with more than 7 points.”
The Blue Devils would put things together on their final drive of the first half. Taking over possession with 4:30 on the clock in the second quarter, junior Kody Lewis carried the team into East territory. Quarterback Brock Thompson then carried the ball for 8 yards, then the Blue Devils gave the ball back to Lewis who punched into the end zone from 19 yards out. Martin Porras converted the point-after attempt and the Blue Devils went into the break tied, 7-7, with the Patriots.
“I think it was big to go into the half tied up as opposed to trailing,” Rice said. “We went into halftime feeling like we were going to be fine.”
The Patriots put together a solid drive in the third quarter, getting deep into Blue Devil territory; however, a forced fumble recovered by Blue Devil senior Justin Pike ended the drive and gave UCHS the momentum it used to score on the ensuing possession.
The Blue Devils took over with just over 5 minutes to play in the third quarter. Carries by Lewis and a completed pass by Thompson to senior Brett Strother brought UCHS to midfield. Two unsuccessful plays put the Blue Devils into third-and-12, but the team responded with Thompson finding senior Austin O’Dell on a 37-yard pass. Strother then scored his first touchdown of the season for a 13-7 score.
Taking over just seconds into the fourth quarter, the Patriots we not going to go quietly on their home field. The Blue Devils forced them into a third-and-20, but a halfback pass gave the Patriots first-and-goal. UCHS forced a fourth down, but East quarterback Dylan White found a receiver in the end zone. The point-after attempt was successful and the home-standing Patriots led 14-13 with less than 6 minutes to play.
Memories of last season’s last-second defeat to East at Gentry Stadium in Erwin could have deflated the Blue Devils, but that was not the case.
“It says a lot about their belief in one another,” Rice said. “It’s been nice to be able to run the football like we have in the first two games.”
After Lewis gave the team good field position on the kickoff return, UCHS gave the ball to senior Noah White who avoided tackles on a very memorable run to score the game-winning touchdown.
“It was really special, especially for Noah to make that play when we really needed it,” Rice said of White’s run. “Kody was gassed from carrying us all night and he had just made a great kickoff return. Noah stepped in and just took off with it. We executed that play almost perfectly. I think if we can have a great season, we may look back and see that that play was a pivotal point in our season.”
East had one last chance to score, but Blue Devil senior Danny Lowery’s sack on fourth-and-six gave UCHS the ball back and the Blue Devils ran out the clock to hold on for the 19-14 victory, the first for UCHS over East on the gridiron since 2013.
“Any win is great, and certainly one against a bigger school is even better,” Rice said. “We have a lot of respect for Sullivan East and their program. They have had some really good teams in the last two or three years. We felt like they stole one from us last year, so it was nice to get that taste out of our mouth from a year ago.”
The Blue Devils had 291 total yards of offense – 219 on the ground and 72 in the air – and for the second consecutive game did not commit a turnover. East had 267 yards – 180 rushing and 87 passing and 1 turnover.
Thompson was 6-12 passing for 61 yards. O’Dell had 1 catch for 37 yards. Strother had 2 catches for 14 yards and 7 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown. Lewis had 16 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown. White had 2 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown. Junior Jacob Schreck and senior Ty Wilson each had 3 tackles to lead the UCHS defense.
UCHS will host North Greene (0-2) on Friday, Aug. 31, for the first Region 1-3A game of the season at Gentry Stadium in Erwin. The Blue Devils defeated the Huskies, 43-0, last season in Greene County; however, Rice does not expect an easy contest this week.
“They have a lot more kids out than they did last year and a new coach,” Rice said of the Huskies. “They do some good things on film. This is our first region game of the year, so we have to have an even greater focus this week to ensure we take care of business.”
Rice asked that the community come out and support the Blue Devils.
“I would just like to encourage the community to come watch these young men play Friday night at Gentry Stadium,” he added. “They have worked unbelievably hard to get to this point. The Relay For Life is also having some events before and after our game this Friday, so we would like to get as many people there as possible.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.