By Keeli Parkey
The 2018 Unicoi County High School football team (9-2) ended the program’s playoff winless streak on a chilly, rainy night last week. Playing Kingston (4-7) at Gentry Stadium in Erwin on Friday, Nov. 2, the Blue Devils overcame a late deficit to win the program’s first postseason game since 1985. The game was also the first time the Blue Devils hosted a playoff game since 1991.
“I am extremely proud of our guys,” head coach Drew Rice said. “They fought for that win and definitely deserved to experience a special win like that.”
The Blue Devils scored first in Friday’s game on a 7-yard run by Kody Lewis. Martin Porras converted the extra point and UCHS led 7-0 with just over 2 minutes to play in the first quarter.
Kingston responded with a touchdown around the 10-minute mark of the second quarter on a 26-yard touchdown pass by Bo Baker for a 7-6 score. The teams kept one another out of the end zone for the remainder of the half.
“I felt good about it,” Rice said of the game as he headed to the locker room for halftime. “We made some big stops on defense in the first half, so that was a boost going into halftime. We had to correct some minor things, but I thought we came out and cleared a lot of those things up in the second half.”
Kingston got on the scoreboard first in the third quarter thanks to an 8-yard touchdown run by Brad Keathley. The 2-point conversion failed and the Yellowjackets led 12-7 with just under 2 minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils weren’t going down without a fight.
“I think they just made the decision that we were not going to lose that game,” Rice said of his players. “That’s what leadership looks like. Guys like Brett Strother and Noah White willed us into that win. I am so proud of our seniors and how they played their last game at Gentry Stadium.”
It was Strother who put the Blue Devils back in the lead. The senior snagged a pass from quarterback Brock Thompson and raced downfield for a 61-yard touchdown. Porras was successful again and UCHS lead 14-12 with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.
A motivated UCHS defense forced Kingston to punt on the Yellowjackets’ first fourth quarter possession; however, a penalty against the Blue Devils gave their opponent the ball back. Kingston didn’t waste the opportunity, scoring a touchdown and successfully completing a 2-point conversion. The Yellowjackets held a 20-14 lead with 6:17 to play.
Losing the lead didn’t deflate the Blue Devils. Instead, the team put together a quick scoring drive. On second down, Thompson handed the ball off to Lewis who broke free for an 83-yard run to tie the game, 20-20.
“I felt like we had enough time to put a drive together,” Rice said. “It only took two plays, but it was a huge possession. Our guys believed we were going to win and that was what helped us get it done.”
With the pressure on, Porras then stepped up and nailed another extra point, putting UCHS in the lead for good.
“He’s been great,” Rice said of Porras. “He has gone 44-52 on the year, which is tremendous, especially when there was a time here when making one extra point in a game was a challenge. Our soccer program has been a huge help to us there. The last three years our kicker has been a member of the soccer team and it’s really been beneficial to us.”
Kingston took possession again with 5 minutes to play, but the Blue Devil defense did its job and forced a punt.
“They played lights out. I can’t say enough about them,” Rice said about his defense. “Coach (Jason) Hensley, coach (Devin) Whitehead, coach (Malcolm) Foreman and coach (Brandon) Adams had those guys ready to go. Danny Lowery and Drew Williams were all over the place all night.”
The Blue Devils took possession with just over 4 minutes to play. A few plays into the drive, Lewis broke free again – this time for a 46-yard touchdown – and UCHS led 27-20.
“Our offensive line was able to create some running lanes and all Kody needs is a crease and he is gone,” Rice said. “He’s a special talent. He is knocking on the door of 2,000 yards rushing and missed one game, and didn’t play in the fourth quarter of half of our games.”
Kingston took possession with 2 minutes to play. Once again, the UCHS stuffed the Yellowjackets and the Blue Devils won the game, 27-20.
“It’s huge for our program,” Rice said of the playoff victory. “To get to nine wins and win a game like that, at home, it’s just huge. I hope this is a huge catapult for us for the rest of this season and even into next year. The success we have had this year is a credit to these young men and their dedication to this program and each other.”
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Lewis rushed for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns in the win. The junior has 24 touchdowns and 1,921 total yards this season.
Thompson completed 6-9 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Strother had 4 catches for 124 yards and 1 touchdown.
Noah White and Roby Lemmon led the UCHS defense with 7 and 5 tackles, respectively. Each also had a sack.
Lewis had 4 tackles. Strother, Rodrigo Castellon and Isaiah Edwards had 3 tackles each. Castellon also had a sack. Tanner VanHoy had an interception.
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The victory over Kingston sends UCHS to Alcoa to face the three-time defending state champion Tornadoes (11-0) on Friday, Nov. 9, in the second round of the playoffs.
Alcoa defeated Claiborne, 56-0, in the first round on Nov. 2.
According to the TSSAA website, Alcoa has won 16 state titles since 1977. The Blue Devils faced Alcoa in the first round of the playoffs in 2016 and lost 49-13.
“They are a tremendous team and program – maybe even the best in the state, regardless of classification,” Rice said. “We know what we have on our plate, but we are going to prepare this week like we have all year and have a great week of practice.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.