By Trey Williams
Unicoi County football will seemingly go from its darkest hour to its brightest night when the Blue Devils host South Greene in both teams’ season opener on Friday, Aug. 21
Gentry Stadium will be sporting a $3.2 million makeover, one that looked like it might not be formally christened until 2021 thanks to coronavirus pandemic concerns. But the region’s directors of schools decided last week to make fall sports a full-go – for now, at least.
The stadium features new bleachers, including a reserve section with chair-back seating, a new press box and new LED lighting. All things considered, there figures to be even more season-opening adrenaline than usual.
“I think so, and that’s kind of synonymous with the first game anyway,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said. “But then you add in the new stadium, you add in all the doubt and uncertainty that I think all of us probably felt at different times since March, and yeah, I would say things will be pretty intense Friday night, to say the least.”
The only area school system currently having hit the pause button on fall sports is Carter County. The two-week holding pattern has tentatively postponed Unicoi’s Week Two game against Hampton, but that could change with the Carter County school board set to revisit the topic this week.
“If they decide to start letting sports play, then we may play Hampton in Week Two,” Unicoi County athletic director Michael Smith said. “At one time that game wasn’t going to be played.”
South Greene and Unicoi have split their past four games. The Blue Devils, who have combined to win 15 games the past two seasons, fell 28-7 at South Greene to open the 2019 season.
The Rebels’ lost 42-32 during their last visit to Erwin in 2018, a season during which they went on to the state quarterfinals. The Rebels won 18 games the past two seasons under Scotty Verran, who has since moved to West Greene.
Verran has been replaced by long-time South Greene coach Shawn Jones, who brought former West Greene head coach Joe Case in as his defensive coordinator.
The Rebels graduated three large, capable linemen from last year’s team, but Rice is quick to note quarterback Luke Myers and the capabilities of Jones and Case.
“Myers is a good player,” Rice said. “Shawn and I have probably talked more the last month than we normally would just because of all the uncertainties that have come with this summer. I really like Coach Jones. He’s a great dude. He’s done it a long time.
“And Joe Case is now the defensive coordinator there, and Shawn’s a defensive guy. How much are they gonna change? They’ve won a lot of games the last two years. So we’re looking at it like they’re probably not gonna change a whole lot, having had that kind of success.”
South Greene advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season after reaching the quarterfinals in 2018.
“That line they had last year was incredible,” Rice said. “Three of those kids were gonna be playing college football this fall. So we know that they lost a lot there. It’s always tough, but we’ll see (how we match up on the lines).”
The Blue Devils offense is propelled by 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior quarterback Brock Thompson, who has been starting since early in his freshman season. The Devils must replace dynamic running back Kody Lewis, but Rice is eager to turn Thompson loose with four quality receivers (Jordan Bridges, Tracy Vanover, Evan Huff, Robbie O’Dell) and athletic 6-foot-5 sophomore tight end Lucas Slagle.
“We feel like those four (receivers), partnered with Brock, we feel like we can sling it around a little bit,” Rice said. “And then Lucas is a sophomore tight end that’ll play some wideout, too. He gives us a weapon from the tight end spot that we really haven’t had in a little bit. We’re constantly looking for ways to get him the ball because he’s such a weapon with his height and his athleticism.”
Rice said Lewis will be replaced “by committee.” Four running backs could all play a significant number of snaps – junior Isaiah Smith, sophomores Nehemiah Edwards and Caleb Pelaez and freshman Nolan Bennett.
“We’re excited about all those guys,” Rice said.
The lines are anchored by senior Rodrigo Castellon (5-10, 250).
“He’s probably in the conversation, as far as being an O-lineman and a D-lineman able to do a whole lot of things, of being one of the best linemen I’ve coached in my time here,” Rice said. “He’s rock-solid, a weight room kid and really explosive. We’re really gonna lean on him on both sides of the ball.”
Smith anchors the linebacking corps. Rice said this could be the deepest secondary he’s had. Thompson, Bryson Peterson, O’Dell and Gavyn Sawyer can all play safety, and Pelaez and Matthew Sellars have Rice’s confidence at cornerback.
The Blue Devils have a college prospect in sophomore punter Esteban Mendoza, a preseason all-state selection in Murphy Fair’s yearbook.
Rice is eager to utilize his latest tool chest, especially in a shiny new venue against a quality program.
“You’re always gonna get a great effort from them,” Rice said. “The last four years it’s been back and forth. We opened up with South Greene when I played. Our people travel well down there and their people travel well up here. So I think it’s a good opening game for both of us.”