Freshman Caleb Pelaez returns a kickoff for a touchdown during the Blue Devils’ 65-13 victory over Claiborne at Gentry Stadium on Friday, Sept. 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

The Unicoi County High School football team gave the homecoming crowd plenty to cheer about at Gentry Stadium on Friday, Sept. 20, as they cruised to a 65-13 victory over Claiborne (2-3, 0-2).

“I thought we played well,” head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “We came out of the gates fast and never really slowed down. I was very proud of how we played.”

The victory puts the Blue Devils’ overall record at 3-2 and their Region 1-AAA record at 2-0. It was also the team’s third consecutive victory in as many weeks.

“Football is meant to be played with a certain level of passion and fire,” Rice said. “We have figured out that it’s a lot more fun when you approach the game that way, and our play has been pretty solid the last three weeks because of that.”

Rice also attributes the Blue Devils’ success after two early defeats to the players’ “focus and commitment.”

“We said after the first two games that we knew we were better than we had played and that if we continued to show up and work every day, that the wins would take care of themselves,” Rice added. “They have done that, and I think it speaks to the trust we have as a team. We have moved some guys around in some places and it’s made a big difference. But more than anything we are executing better on both sides of the ball. Our energy has been very high the last three weeks and our play has mirrored that.”

During the first quarter against Claiborne, the Blue Devils started their first scoring drive of the game thanks to a fumble recovery by Lane Garland around midfield.

“Our defense did a good job of keeping their offense off the field for the most part,” Rice said.

Quarterback Brock Thompson then pitched the ball to Evan Huff, who raced down the field for a 28-yard gain. Kody Lewis this ran untouched into the end zone from 25 yards out. Miquel Vasquez converted the extra point – his first of nine on the night without missing – for a 7-0 UCHS lead.

The Blue Devil defense then forced the Bulldogs to punt and took over possession around midfield once again. It took only four plays for Lewis to find the end zone again and for UCHS to lead 14-0. And, with just over 2 minutes to play in the first quarter there was little doubt that the Blue Devils had control of the game.

“Anytime you can jump out in front of someone early, it’s huge,” Rice said of the early lead. “Our guys pushed down the gas and never looked back. I thought we played very well with the lead, and handled being up with a lot of maturity.”

The Blue Devils scored 37 points in the second quarter as their dominance continued. Touchdowns included a 45-yard pass by Thompson to Huff; a 22-yard pass by Thompson to L.J. Mitchell; an 8-yard run by Lewis; a 72-yard kickoff return by Caleb Pelaez; and a 5-yard run by Garland. The UCHS defense also scored in the second quarter thanks to a safety by Jordan Bridges.

The Blue Devils held a 51-7 lead over the Bulldogs at halftime.

At the break, Rice told his team to stay focused on getting the victory – and that’s what they did.

“We talked about it a lot at the half,” Rice said. “I don’t think we played a starter in the second half. That speaks volumes to our young guys and how well they are able to go in and run all three phases of the game in a varsity setting is just tremendous. We have some unbelievably talented freshmen.”

Richie Laughren scored on a 6-yard run for the Blue Devils in the third quarter and Bridges scored on a 39-yard pass from Eli Bratton in the fourth.

Getting varsity experience for younger players is something Rice and the UCHS coaching staff have been able to do during the team’s blowout victories in the last three weeks. This, according to Rice, will be beneficial to the team down the road.

“We got everyone in for multiple plays and were able to execute all special teams in the second half with our JV units,” he added. “For them to be able to go in and play an entire half, it’s a real compliment to them. This freshmen group is our most talented class from top to bottom, we are really excited about them. Being able to rest the older guys in the second half is huge as well, especially at this point in the season.”

Claiborne’s two touchdowns came in the second and fourth quarters. The Bulldogs had 238 total yards of offense against the Blue Devils – 127 passing and 111 rushing – along with 3 turnovers.

The UCHS offense totaled 392 yards with 171 coming in the air and 221 on the ground.

“I will always give credit to our offensive and defensive lines when we have a dominant game,” Rice said. “That’s where the game is won. Outside of those guys, I thought our secondary played extremely well. I also thought freshman Caleb Pelaez really showed what he is capable of. He had a kickoff return for a touchdown and almost returned another punt for a touchdown. He’s super explosive and is going to be very fun to watch over the next four years.”

Thompson was 6-8 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns. Bratton was 2-3 for 66 yards and 1 touchdown.

Lewis had 8 carries for 102 yards and 3 touchdowns. Diego Diaz had 4 carries for 65 yards. Laughren had 5 carries for 46 yards and 1 touchdown. Nehemiah Edwards had 2 carries for 6 yards. Garland had 1 carry for 5 yards and a touchdown.

Huff had 3 catches for 72 yards and 1 touchdown. Bridges had 1 catch for 39 yards and 1 touchdown. Bryson Peterson had 1 catch for 27 yards. Mitchell had 1 catch for 22 yards and a touchdown. Tracy Vanover had 1 catch for 9 yards. Tanner VanHoy had 1 catch for 3 yards.

Garland led the UCHS defense with 5 tackles and a fumble recovery. Blake Edney and Zhante Breedlove each had 3 tackles. Robbie O’Dell had an interception.

Esteban Mendoza kicked-off for UCHS 10 times for a total of 539 yards. Vasquez was 9-9 on extra point attempts.

“I think we are playing our assignments really well on both sides of the ball,” Rice said. “We have a good vibe about us right now; hopefully that will continue.”

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The Blue Devils get a break from region play this week, but not from tough competition, as they travel to Bluff City to face Sullivan East (0-4).

“They had Johnson County beat in the first game of the year, so that’s all I need to know about them,” Rice said of the Patriots. “They play in a tremendously tough league in 4A, so their record is deceiving. We are going to have to have a great week of practice and preparation and stay hungry.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

“We just need to continue to sharpen all aspects of our game,” Rice said. “You can never get complacent in this game. We are continuing to lift three days a week right now and I think that is starting to show up in how we are able to win the line of scrimmage and how our guys are finishing runs and tackles.”

For more photos from the Blue Devils’ win over Claiborne visit The Erwin Record’s online photo store.