By Keeli Parkey
The 2019 season has been one of highs and lows for the Unicoi County High School football team.
“It’s been up and down for sure,” head coach Drew Rice said of the season thus far. “I am proud of how we responded after those first two weeks to go on a really good run there during September and set ourselves up for the postseason.”
The first two weeks of the season were some of the toughest thus far, as the Blue Devils dropped to 0-2 after losses at South Greene and to Hampton at home.
“Losing the first two like we did was certainly a challenge,” Rice said. “I thought our guys bounced back really tough after that start. I think that says a lot about the kind of young men we have. We talk all the time about how football teaches you so much about life. There are great days and there are days that are really tough in life, and football is the same way. If we can teach a group of young men how to deal with adversity when they are 16 and 17 years old, then hopefully that will serve them well later in life when real adversity hits them.”
Lessons were learned from those non-conference losses, according to Rice.
“I think it refocused us some, and I feel like we responded really well to it,” he added. “I do think we lost to two really good football teams there though.”
Following the 0-2 start, the Blue Devils bounced back to win four consecutive games during September, including two region games. They defeated non-conference foes Happy Valley and Sullivan East and conference opponents North Greene and Claiborne. The team scored 65 points in each of those league victories. The Blue Devil defense also stood out.
“I think when our defense is being disruptive and causing turnovers, we are really tough,” Rice said. “The games we have done that, we have been very successful. I think we have been pretty consistent offensively the last five games and we have played at a high level.”
UCHS took its 2-0 region record to Chuckey-Doak on Oct. 4 for a battle of league unbeaten teams. In a very memorable contest, it was the Black Knights who came out on top, scoring the game-winning touchdown with less than 30 seconds to play.
“It was tough to swallow, and still is,” Rice said of the loss. “Hopefully, the players recognize that you have to play for 48 minutes to win the most meaningful football games.”
Many Blue Devils have made significant contributions to the team’s success so far in 2019, according to Rice. Leading the way has been senior Kody Lewis.
“Kody has been playing through some minor injuries all season really,” Rice said. “It speaks to how tough he is and how he has still been able to rush for almost 1,000 yards through seven games and not even be at 100 percent.”
Others have also contributed to the offense.
“Diego Diaz has been tremendous for us as well, giving us some huge yards throughout the season,” Rice said. “(Quarterback) Brock (Thompson) conducts our offense unlike anyone else probably could. He has won a whole lot of football games for us in his career, and we look forward to seeing what all he can accomplish. Peyton Whitson, Evan Huff, Tanner VanHoy and Tracy Vanover have all been great for us in our passing game.”
Defensive-minded players have also been an asset on the other side of the ball this season.
“Roby Lemmon and Lane Garland have been really tough for us at linebacker – they play like you would want seniors to play,” Rice said. “Zhante Breedlove, L.J. Mitchell, and Rodrigo Castellon have all been really tough for us on our defensive line as well.”
UCHS has also benefitted from special teams this season.
“Esteban Mendoza, who is a freshman for us, has been tremendous with his kickoffs and his punts. He has a shot to be a big-time college football kicker if he continues to work and develop his craft,” Rice said. “Miguel Vasquez has been a huge weapon for us on (extra points). He is currently 33-35 on extra points and he had a stretch where he hit almost 30 in a row. Both those guys have been huge for us in the kicking game.”
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The Blue Devils are now 4-3 overall with a 2-1 record in Region 1-AAA. Their bye week last week has allowed players and coaches to prepare for the remainder of the regular season.
“We are pretty healthy for the most part,” Rice said. “The bye week came at a good time. We tried to let some of our guys who had some nagging injuries take advantage of the week off and get all of our guys’ legs back under them.”
With Chuckey-Doak in the top spot, UCHS is currently tied for second place with West Greene and Johnson County – their two remaining league opponents. They will host West Greene on Friday, Oct. 18, and will travel to Johnson County on Friday, Nov. 1. Between those games, the Blue Devils will host Volunteer for senior night on Friday, Oct. 25.
To win a region championship, the Blue Devils must defeat both West Greene and Johnson County and will need Chuckey-Doak to lose two games. The Black Knights still have to play Claiborne on Oct. 18 and West Greene on Nov. 1.
“We have talked about how all we can control is us,” Rice said. “So our goal is to win these last three and host a playoff game for the second year in a row. That’s something that we have 100 percent control of.”
Rice expects West Greene to come to Erwin looking for a victory this week.
“They are a good football team,” he said of the Buffaloes. “They have had some impressive wins, so we know we are going to have to bring a great effort and focus this Friday.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Johnson County on the road in Mountain City in a few weeks will be another battle against a solid football team.
“It’s always a tough game with them, especially up there,” Rice said of the Longhorns. “We just have to take care of business between now and then, and worry about them when the time comes.”
Rice encourages the community to come out and support the Blue Devils.
“We always strive to put a product on the field that people can be proud of,” he said. “These guys, especially these seniors, have invested a countless amount of hours into being the best we can be and they deserve all the support they can get.”