L.J. Mitchell avoids a tackle to gain extra yards after a catch during the Blue Devils’ playoff loss on Friday, Nov. 8, at Gentry Stadium. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

The 2019 season has come to an end for the Unicoi County High School football team.

On Friday, Nov. 8, the Blue Devils (6-5) couldn’t recover from some early mistakes and were defeated by Gatlinburg-Pittman (9-2) in 3A playoff action at Gentry Stadium.

“We played a very good football team Friday night,” UCHS head coach Drew Rice said. “We made some key mistakes at crucial points early in the game and let it get away from us. You can’t do that against a team of that caliber. I am very proud of how our guys fought for four quarters though – they all laid it on the line.”

The Highlanders took a 7-0 lead on their first drive of the game on a 10-yard touchdown pass from J.D. Shults to Ethan Stinnett.

The Blue Devils were able to respond on their first drive, going 65 yards on 10 plays. The drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Kody Lewis. Miguel Vasquez then tied the game with just under three minutes to play in the opening quarter with his successful extra point attempt.

Things then began to unravel for the Blue Devils as the Highlanders began to take advantage of mistakes by the home team. Gatlinburg-Pittman scored 27 unanswered points during the rest of the first half to hold a 34-7 lead at halftime.

In addition to the deficit at the break, the Blue Devils also had to deal with an injury that forced Lewis out of the game.

“Kody got shaken up a little bit, and the doctors just didn’t feel great about him going back in,” Rice said. “So we held him out. He has a bright future ahead of him and we did not want to jeopardize that in any way. It definitely was a big hit losing him in the first half. With that being said, I thought our offense executed very well in spurts in the second half.”

The Highlanders held a 48-7 lead at the end of the third and took a 55-7 lead in the fourth quarter before the Blue Devils scored again. The UCHS scoring drive took only one play as Diego Diaz broke loose in the middle of the field for a 68-yard touchdown. Vasquez’s extra point made the score 55-14.

A fumble by the Highlanders on the ensuing kickoff gave the Blue Devils the ball back on the 15-yard line. Diaz carried for 9 yards on first down before rushing into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. UCHS then trailed 55-21 with 8 minutes to play in the game after another successful extra point from Vasquez.

“I think Diego really ran tough for us,” Rice said. “He would have been the feature back for most of the teams on our schedule; he just happened to be playing behind an all-state running back in Kody. Diego was tremendous all year for us in whatever we asked him to do.”

Staying in the fight, the Blue Devils went for an onside kick, but it was recovered by Gatlinburg-Pittman. The Highlanders would score again with less than 2 minutes to play for the final score of 62-21.

Friday’s game was won in the trenches as the size of Gatlinburg-Pittman caused trouble for the Blue Devils.

“They were able to control the line of scrimmage all night,” he said. “That’s how you win football games, and that’s exactly what they did. I thought we did some really good things though. We were able to move the ball on them throughout the game, but it just wasn’t enough. Their size up front really gave us trouble, the same way bigger teams we had played earlier in the year did. Our guys really fought and I am proud of the resolve they showed.”

On Friday, the Blue Devils had 310 yards of total offense, while Gatlinburg-Pittman had 472.

Diaz had 12 carries for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns. Quarterback Brock Thompson passed for 48 yards. L.J. Mitchell had 2 catches for 28 yards. Peyton Whitson had 2 catches for 19 yards.

For the UCHS defense against the Highlanders, Isaiah Smith had 4 tackles. Michael Harrington and Mitchell had 3 each. Tanner VanHoy, Lane Garland, Zhante Breedlove, Ethan Fuller and Robbie O’Dell had 2 each.

The loss was the final game for the Blue Devil seniors.

“They have been a tremendous group,” Rice said. “They will always be special to me, as their work set into action success that has not been seen here in decades. So, I will always be thankful for each and every one of them. We wish them success as they go out into the world, and just know they will always be Blue Devils.”

One of those seniors was Lewis, who had 108 yards and 1 touchdown in only one half of action on Friday. According to Rice, Lewis had 5,187 total yards in his career. He rushed for 4,267 yards and 57 touchdowns. He caught 2 passes for touchdowns and returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns.

“Kody scored 61 touchdowns in four years – 60 of those touchdowns coming in the last three years,” Rice said. “He holds the school’s single-season rushing record for yards and touchdowns, as well as the school’s career record for rushing yards, total yards and touchdowns. He was the first football player to be named all-state in 2018, in at least 30 years, maybe longer than that. He is going to go down as one of the greatest football players to ever play here.”

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Despite the playoff loss, the 2019 season was another successful one for the UCHS football program.

“We had a good season. These guys put together the first back-to-back winning seasons in 30 years and that’s something nobody will ever be able to take from them,” Rice said. “We definitely had a couple plays and games we would have liked to have another shot at, but that’s life. We talk to our guys all the time about how this game will prepare them for whatever life throws at them. I hope they can carry the discipline and toughness that football requires with them for the rest of their lives.”

The loss at Chuckey-Doak earlier in the season, which kept the Blue Devils from a league crown, still stings, though.

“We were a tipped ball away from a region championship,” Rice said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow for me, our coaches and these guys. But we will just use that to motivate us this offseason as we get back to work in the weight room and continue to do the things that have allowed us to be successful in the last couple of years.” 

Rice gives credit to his players for the team’s success.

“I think we were successful because of the way these guys have worked,” he said. “These seniors were freshmen when we took over that first offseason and really changed how we worked out and the things we required of them. Their dedication to this program and each other has been tremendous. Our work in the weight room has allowed us to have a lot of success running the football. We have rushed for over 5,500 yards the last two seasons and that’s just tremendous. We scored 364 points this season, 18 points away from leading the entire area in total offense. Those are tremendous numbers and it’s all credit to these guys and the work they have put in.”

The 2019 season was the fifth consecutive with at least five wins for the UCHS program. The last time the Blue Devils did that was 1985-89.

“Hopefully we can continue to play at a high level and create similar results,” Rice said. “We are very talented in our younger grades, so we are very hopeful for the future of Unicoi County football.”

As they go into the offseason, the playoff loss will be used as a teaching tool for returning players.

“Region 2 is probably the best region in the state in class 3A,” Rice said. “So for us to advance to the later rounds of the playoffs, we are going to have to get through those teams. Last year we were able to beat Kingston from Region 2 and advanced, but then ran into Alcoa. It’s extremely tough, but we can only control what we can control. We just have to continue to work and get bigger and stronger and try to rise to that level of competition.”

• • •

In other 3A playoff action between Region 1 and Region 2 on Friday, Kingston (7-4) defeated Chuckey-Doak (6-5), 28-6; Austin-East (8-3) defeated Johnson County (4-7), 41-0; and Alcoa (10-1) defeated West Greene (5-6), 56-6.

Gatlinburg-Pittman will face Alcoa and Kingston will play Austin-East. Those games are set for Friday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.