By Keeli Parkey
An explosive third quarter carried the Unicoi County High School football team (4-1, 2-0) to a 42-13 victory at Claiborne on Friday, Sept. 14.
“I think it was the most complete game we have played,” head coach Drew Rice said. “I thought we went in and executed very well.”
Falling behind early in games has been an issue for UCHS this season. However, this was not the case on Friday as the Blue Devils got off to a solid start on Friday and took a 13-7 lead in the opening quarter thanks to touchdowns by Kody Lewis and Brett Strother.
“We made it a focus not to have the slow start,” Rice said. “I think it just shows how bought in these guys are, they are a tremendous bunch of young men. We have to have a great week of practice and be ready to go execute again.”
Despite forcing turnovers in the second quarter, the Blue Devils only scored one TD – on a 36-yard run by Lewis. Strother carried the ball into the end zone to complete the 2-point conversion and UCHS took a 21-7 lead into the break.
The Blue Devils took complete control of the game in the third quarter, scoring three touchdowns – one each by Lewis, Noah White and Richie Laughren. Rice attributes the team’s second half success on Friday to their off-field preparations.
“I think our weight room work and our conditioning really took over,” he said. “We started busting holes open and our offensive and defensive lines really started moving people around. It’s great to see all our work in the off-season showing up when it matters.”
The Bulldogs added a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but this didn’t put a damper on how well the UCHS defense performed against Claiborne’s crafty offense.
“It’s always a challenge preparing for an offense that you don’t see much,” Rice said. “They ran a triple option offense where you have to play disciplined and assignment football. The only big play they had was the touchdown pass in the first quarter and when you look at the film, it was actually incomplete. We were in the right position; it’s just one of those things you have to take and go on.”
The Blue Devils forced three interceptions – two snagged by Strother and one by Gavin Keasling.
“The turnover battle is such a huge part of the game,” Rice said. “If we can continue to be on the right side of that, we will continue to be successful. Brett made two great plays on both his interceptions. Gavin Keasling played very well at corner for us as well.”
UCHS had 68 passing yards and 361 rushing yards for a total of 429 yards in the game. Lewis scored 3 TDs and had 228 yards.
“Kody’s a special player,” Rice said. “All he needs is a crease and he is gone. I don’t know if I have ever seen a kid score as many times as he does without ever being physically touched by a defender. He has really devoted himself to getting bigger and more explosive, his success is a credit to how hard both he and his teammates have worked.”
Quarterback Brock Thompson was 6-11 for 68 yards. Strother had 3 catches for 12 yards and rushed for 54 yards and 1 TD. Austin O’Dell (27 yards), LJ Mitchell (21 yards) and Peyton Whitson (8 yards) each had 1 catch. Laughren had 4 carries for 25 yards and a TD. Isaiah Smith had 3 carries for 27 yards.
White had 5 tackles for the UCHS defense and 1 sack in the win. Mitchell and Danny Lowery had 4 tackles each.
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Friday’s victory kept UCHS perfect in Region 3-A play
“It’s huge,” Rice said of going to 2-0 in league play. “Any road win is big, but a road region win is even bigger. We have two down, and three more to go to achieve our goal of a region championship. They understood the importance of that game and their play reflected that.”
Remaining region games include Chuckey-Doak in Erwin on Sept. 28, West Greene on the road on Oct. 12 and Johnson County at home on Oct. 26.
With the season now half over, Rice is pleased with where his team stands.
“I think we all wish we could have the Happy Valley game back,” he said. “But at the same time, we are sitting here at 4-1 and undefeated in the region. I think we have to feel pretty good about that. We knew we had a chance to be tough, but we still have plenty of football left to play.”
In the weeks ahead, limiting mistakes will be key to the team’s success, according to the head coach.
“I think taking care of the football is always going to be a focus,” Rice said. “We have shown over the last two years that when we do that, we are successful. We have to stay healthy and continue to try and go 1-0 each individual week. We are pretty healthy for the most part. You will always have bumps and bruises in this game, but we have been blessed so far with being able to stay healthy.”
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If you’re a Blue Devil fan, Gentry Stadium will be the place to be on Friday, Sept. 21. Not only will Rice’s team host Sullivan Central (0-4), the school will also celebrate Homecoming 2018 and the 1,000th game in the history of Blue Devil football.
“(Sullivan Central) is a good football team,” Rice said. “Their record doesn’t show what type of team they are. We are going to have a to come out ready and execute and play disciplined football.
“This Friday is the 1,000th game in program history, as well as homecoming,” Rice continued. “We would like to invite everyone in the community to come out and support what these young men are trying to accomplish. We hope to see a big crowd Friday night.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.