By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County High School football team (2-3, 2-0) controlled the game from kickoff against Claiborne High School on Friday, Sept. 15. The Blue Devils took a three touchdown lead in the second quarter and held on to shutout the Bulldogs, 21-0, to remain unbeaten in region play.
“I thought it was a good showing for us,” head coach Drew Rice said. “We talked about how important it was to get this one and move to 2-0 in the region. Our kids bought into that and really came out of the gates fast. I am very proud of our focus and effort.”
Being prepared for the game led to the team’s solid performance, according to the head coach.
“We had a great week of practice,” Rice said. “We take a lot of pride in how we get ready for games as far as our game day routine, from the time school lets out until kickoff. I think our strong starts the last couple of weeks are a product of that.”
After the Blue Devils were forced to punt on their first possession of the game, the UCHS defense showed that it would be asserting its dominance over the Bulldogs on Claiborne’s first possession. Facing a fourth-and-3 with just over 7 minutes to play in the first quarter, the Bulldogs went for it. The Blue Devils wouldn’t allow a first down and UCHS took over possession of the ball.
“The fourth down stop by our defense on their first drive was huge,” Rice said. “It set up a score.”
Runs by Kody Lewis and Brett Strother led a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Brock Thompson. UCHS took a 6-0 lead with 5 minutes to play in the quarter.
The Blue Devil defense then forced the Bulldogs to punt. Lewis gained 7 yards on first down, but a 5-yard penalty and incomplete pass brought up third-and-8 at the 47-yard line. Thompson then hit Troy Podvin to bring UCHS down to the 5-yard line.
“Troy’s catch was a huge play,” Rice said.
Strother then ran the ball into the end zone. UCHS went for – and converted – a 2-point conversion to take a 14-0 lead with less than 3 minutes to play in the quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Blue Devils then pinned Claiborne deep in their own territory thanks to a great play by Noah White.
“The big hit by Noah on our second kickoff was one that really got our guys fired up,” Rice said. “He is a headhunter and when he makes plays like that it makes our entire team better.”
The Blue Devils’ third – and final – touchdown of the game came courtesy of the UCHS defense. After taking possession on their own 3-yard line, the Bulldogs ran a pass play on third-and-5, but Blue Devil Owen Nicholson jumped in the passing lane, grabbed an interception and raced into the end zone. Porras converted another point after attempt to give UCHS a 21-0 lead with 5 minutes to play in the half.
“I thought our guys on defense really set the tone,” Rice said. “We punted several times in places we could have went for it, but our defense was playing so well we decided to play the field position battle. On that note, Shane Armstrong did an incredible job punting. We downed them twice inside their 10-yard line, and he had another 40-yard punt that flipped the field on them.”
Other players also stood out in Friday’s victory.
“Troy Podvin is starting to come alive at wide receiver,” Rice said. “He was our leading receiver and made some big plays to keep drives alive. Brock Thompson did another good job of running the offense and taking care of the ball.”
The Blue Devils couldn’t keep the momentum going in the second half.
“I think we lost some of our focus,” Rice said. “We did enough to keep the shutout, but we definitely didn’t have the same focus that we had early. We had some untimely penalties in the second half that extended some of their drives and gave up some field position for our offense. Part of learning to win is learning how to put complete games together, and we are still working on that.
“These kids are learning how to win. Sometimes its pretty and sometimes it’s like the fourth quarter was Friday night. But the important thing is when it’s over is what the scoreboard says. I am proud of our effort and how these young men continue to work and improve each week.”
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Thompson completed 9-15 passes for 91 yards and rushed for 1 touchdown. Strother caught 3 passes for 17 yards and rushed for 8 yards and 1 touchdown. Lewis carried the ball 10 times for 62 yards. Michael Smith had 10 carries for 49 yards. Podvin had 3 catches for 56 yards. Nicholson had 2 catches for 21 yards.
Defensively, Nicholson had 15 tackles, 1 interception and return for a touchdown. Smith had 12 tackles and Matthew Hatcher had 8.
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The Blue Devils currently sit atop their region alongside Johnson County. Both teams have 2-0 records in league play going into this week’s contests.
Rounding out the league standings are: Chuckey-Doak, 1-1; West Greene, 1-2; Claiborne, 0-2; and North Greene, 0-2.
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The Blue Devils will travel to Sullivan Central for a non-league contest on Friday, Sept. 22, at 7:30 p.m.
“Central does some good things offensively, “Rice said. “They spread people out and try to get the ball to guys in space. They are a 4A football team and we are not taking them lightly. We are going to have to have a great week of practice and go put four quarters of good football together this Friday.”