By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County High School football team snatched momentum out of the air in their home contest against Region 1-AAA foe West Greene on Friday, Oct. 18.
“I thought we came out of the gates as good as we have all year,” Rice said. “Our defense gave us a big boost with the turnovers and we were able to really click offensively. It was a good win for us.”
On the Buffaloes’ (4-4, 2-2) first three possessions of the game, the Blue Devils (5-3, 3-1) snagged three interceptions – two by Brock Thompson and one by Tanner VanHoy. Each interception led to a touchdown for UCHS – all scored by Kody Lewis – and gave the team a 20-0 lead with around six minutes to play in the first quarter.
“I told our defense that when we can cause turnovers like that, we are very tough to beat,” Rice said. “I think we set a great tone early with the interceptions we caused. Our offense did a good job of capitalizing off of those turnovers.”
After forcing West Greene to punt on the next possession, UCHS added another touchdown near the end of the first quarter when Thompson hit L.J. Mitchell from two yards out for a score. Miguel Vasquez converted the extra point and the Blue Devils held a commanding 27-0 lead.
“We executed the gameplan very well on both sides of the ball,” Rice said of his team’s play in the first half. “I thought we brought a lot of energy into that game and it showed up on the scoreboard.”
There were two scary moments for the Blue Devils in the first half as both Thompson and center Nick Farnor left the game with injuries.
“They went down three plays a part, which is really chaotic to lose your starting center and starting quarterback like that in the middle of an important game,” Rice said. “Our backup center was already out, so we really got in a jam there. Dakoda Bell did a great job of coming in there and snapping for us the entire second half, despite never playing center before. It was huge.”
UCHS led 27-0 at halftime. During the break, Rice and the coaching staff had to decide how to proceed with both their starting quarterback and starting center forced to the sideline.
“We just wanted to get our snaps straightened out when Nick went out,” Rice said. “Our backup center, Dawson Hampton, was out as well, so we were down to the third and fourth string center at times Friday night. It’s impossible to be successful on offense if we aren’t getting a good quarterback-center exchange.”
The Blue Devils saw players step up to fill the void in the second half, according to Rice.
“Robbie O’Dell, Caleb Swinehart and Bryson Peterson all stepped up when we needed them and played very well for us,” Rice said. “We are very excited about all those guys for the future.”
UCHS opened the second half with great field position thanks to a 34-yard kickoff return by Jordan Bridges. Four plays later, Lewis found the end zone again and UCHS lead 33-0.
The offenses for both teams had solid third and fourth quarters, scoring several touchdowns each. Lewis added two more touchdowns in the second half and teammate Diego Diaz scored one.
UCHS led 47-20 at the end of the third quarter and won the game, 53-34.
The game was the first where Lewis, who finished with 133 yards on 18 carries, had not been hampered by an injury this season, according to Rice. The senior has scored 20 touchdowns so far this season.
“He ran like he was 100 percent healthy for the first time maybe all year Friday night,” Rice said of Lewis. “He had six touchdowns and passed the 1,000-yard mark for the season. We did a good job of creating running lanes for him and our passing game forced their defense to stay off-balanced.”
Other players also stood out to the head coach in the victory, including Thompson who was 5-6 passing for 106 yards and a touchdown before leaving with the injury.
“I thought Brock played extremely well on both sides of the ball,” Rice said. “He had two nice interceptions on defense and threw some great balls on offense. We have been giving him a lot of freedom to call some plays at the line of scrimmage and it has been really good to us; he has done a great job with it. Roby Lemmon was a road grader up front for us, that’s two years in a row against them where he got great movement on his blocks and was finishing them five and six yards down the field; it’s really impressive.”
Diaz had 15 carries for 137 yards and 1 touchdown. VanHoy had 1 carry for 12 yards and 1 catch for 14 yards. Evan Huff had 1 catch for 48 yards. Peyton Whitson had 1 catch for 20 yards. Tracy Vanover had 1 catch for 18 yards.
Mitchell had 8 tackles. Isaiah Smith had 6. Lane Garland and Preston Woodby had 5 each.
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The win over West Greene keeps the Blue Devils near the top of the Region 1-AAA standings.
“We are still in control of our own destiny as far as hosting a playoff game,” Rice said. “If we beat Johnson County (on Nov. 1), we will host the first round at Gentry Stadium. We mathematically guaranteed ourselves a spot in the playoffs Friday night as well.”
Chuckey-Doak remains at the top of the region at 4-0. They defeated Claiborne, 62-16, last week. The Blue Devils and Johnson County are both 3-1 and will play one another in Mountain City on Nov. 1 in a game that will determine which team will take second place and get to host a playoff game. West Greene is 2-2 in the region, while Claiborne and North Greene are both 0-4.
“We want to continue to improve each week,” Rice said. “The season is so long. It’s a tremendous grind physically and emotionally. Our guys have had an excellent approach to their preparation all year long. That’s a testament to them and their work ethic.”
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Before they face off with Johnson County, the Blue Devils will host Volunteer on Friday, Oct. 25. Prior to kickoff, the football team and other UCHS sports programs will recognize their senior members.
Rice is hopeful that both Thompson and Farnor will be able to play when the Blue Devils host Volunteer on Friday, Oct. 25, at Gentry Stadium.
“We think both Nick and Brock will be good to go by Friday,” he said. “They both had some swelling in places that didn’t look good Friday night, but both their X-rays came back clean.”
Rice expects the Falcons (2-6) to come to Gentry Stadium expecting to win.
“They are a 5A football team, so their record is very deceiving,” he said. “They are a good football team. We will have to be ready and come out and execute on both sides of the ball. We will have to take care of the football and play our assignments on defense.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. with senior night festivities taking place around 6:45 p.m.