LJ Mitchell puts pressure on Central’s quarterback. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

On a milestone night for the Unicoi County High School football program, this 2018 group of Blue Devils helped make the night even more memorable.

Not only was the Friday, Sept. 21, game in Erwin the annual homecoming game, it also marked the 1,000th football game in the history of UCHS – and the Blue Devils rose to the occasion before one of the largest crowds at Gentry Stadium in recent memory. Led by head coach Drew Rice, the Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0) trounced Sullivan Central (0-5), 42-0, in a non-region game.

“I was very pleased with our execution and our effort,” Rice told The Erwin Record. “I think it was a great win for us.”

Participating in the 1,000th game in school history was significant, particularly for the coaching staff.

“We talked about it, and they were certainly aware of it,” Rice said of his players going into the milestone game. “I think as 16- and 17-year-old kids they might not have fully understood the magnitude of it, which may have been a good thing. Regardless, I thought they played fantastic and am super proud of them. Me personally, as someone who played here, it was certainly special. My grandfather, Keith Lyle, played here in the 1950s, so to have those sort of connections made it an awesome experience.”

After trading possessions with the Cougars on Friday, the Blue Devils got their first score of the night with less than 2 minutes to play in the first quarter when Kody Lewis broke loose for a 68-yard touchdown run. Martin Porras converted the extra point and UCHS led, 7-0.

The Blue Devils took complete control of the game in the second quarter, during which they played some of their best football of the season. Brett Strother scored two touchdowns, Lewis scored one and Austin O’Dell scored one to give UCHS a 35-0 lead at the half. O’Dell’s touchdown came after the Blue Devils forced and recovered a fumble just before halftime.

“Our execution was really strong, and I thought defensively we started to be really disruptive and it created some favorable situations for us,” Rice said.

The final score of the game came early in the third quarter when Strother took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. As he did all game, Porras was good on the extra point for the final score of 42-0.

“Martin has been great this season,” Rice said. “He is one of our soccer recruits, and he has been tremendous for us. Our kicking has been pretty solid over the last couple years thanks to soccer guys who have been willing to come out and kick for us on Friday nights. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The Blue Devil defense held the Cougars to only 77 total yards, the lowest for a UCHS opponent this season.

“I am very proud of them,” Rice said of the defense. “Our kids did a great job of preparing for them and our coaching staff did a great job of putting our guys in good positions. If we can continue to play that aggressive, and execute that well, we will continue to be successful.”

The play on the line was also a bright spot for the Blue Devils and several individuals shone in the win last week. 

“Our offensive and defensive lines really played well,” Rice said. “I thought they both controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Kody had another huge game and really ran hard. I thought (quarterback) Brock (Thompson) did a great job on managing the offense. Brett had one of his better games with a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown. I really thought it was a team effort.”

Against Central, the Blue Devils showed the enthusiasm that is becoming a trademark of the program. This, according to the head coach, shows how much the players are dedicated to the program and the sport.

“I think it shows that they love the game,” Rice said. “We talk a lot about how football is too hard not to have fun doing it. I think our guys have really taken that to heart and it shows in how they approach the game. I hope it means we are heading in the right direction.

“I hope that our young guys see the successes of the older players and it motivates them to want to be doing the same thing in a couple years. The same thing goes for our middle school players and our youth league guys. We are trying to create a culture and a program that people want to be a part of.”

The UCHS offense had 311 total yards – 58 in the air and 253 on the ground.

Thompson was 6-9 passing for 54 yards and 2 touchdowns. Lewis had 8 carries for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns. Strother had 5 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown, 3 catches for 1 touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown. O’Dell had 1 catch for a touchdown. Easton Edwards had 5 carries for 18 yards.

For the Blue Devil defense, Ty Wilson, O’Dell and Tanner VanHoy all had fumble recoveries.

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The Blue Devils will try to go 3-0 in Region 3-A play when they host Chuckey-Doak (3-3, 1-1) at Gentry Stadium on Friday, Sept. 28.

“They are a good football program,” Rice said of the Black Knights. “Coach (Ben) Murphy and his staff do a great job. We are going to have to be ready to get to work all this week in our preparation and get ready to go and get after it again Friday night.”

Not only will a win on Friday keep UCHS perfect in region play, it will also be the first time a Blue Devils has won six games since 1996. That year, UCHS finished the season 6-4.

“We have talked about it,” Rice said. “It’s certainly a goal of ours to have a winning season, but most importantly to remain unbeaten in the league.

“There’s a fine line there, I think, but we always talk about how we have to find confidence in our preparation – if you have done all the things leading up to that point to be successful, then the game should take care of itself. I think our older guys have done a great job of leading this team and ensuring we are ready each week.”

Kickoff on Friday is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.