By Keeli Parkey
For the third consecutive year, the Blue Devils saw their season come to an end with a loss in the first round of the playoffs.
This time around it was the Austin-East Roadrunners (9-2, 5-1) who ended the season for the Unicoi County High School football team (5-6, 3-2) with a 33-0 victory in Knoxville on Friday, Nov. 3, in AAA playoff action.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Blue Devil head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “We went toe-to-toe with the second best team in the state for three quarters. Our guys fought their tails off.”
Particularly during the first half, UCHS battled play-for-play with Austin-East on a wet and muddy field, ending the first quarter tied 0-0. The Blue Devils had their best scoring opportunity of the game on their first possession of that quarter thanks to a heads-up play by senior Owen Nicholson. On fourth-and-2 Nicholson went back to punt, but bobbled the ball; he then carried the ball to the outside and raced for 69 yards to give the Blue Devils first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Unfortunately, a fumble by UCHS ended the drive.
“I think the fumble on the goal line was tough,” Rice said. “If we punch it in there, and hold them before the half, who knows what might have happened.”
The Blue Devil found themselves with good field position again in the second quarter thanks to an interception and return across midfield by Bradley Edwards; however, they turned the ball over on downs.
The scoreless battle continued into the final minute of the first half. The Roadrunners’ put together their first scoring drive of the game thanks to three completed passes by quarterback Chris Hunter, who will be playing for Army when he enters college. The point-after attempt (PAT) was successful and Austin-East took a 7-0 lead into halftime.
“It definitely would have been nice to keep them out of there,” Rice said of the touchdown. “Even with the score though, our guys went into halftime believing we still had a shot.”
In the second half, the Roadrunners’ speed began to wear down the Blue Devils. On their first possession of the third quarter, Hunter carried the ball three times to lead his offense and set up another touchdown. Austin-East then held a 14-0 lead with just over 9 minutes to play in the quarter.
“Their speed was unbelievable,” Rice said of the Roadrunners. “You can watch all the film you want, but there is nothing like seeing it in person. We had trouble tackling them in space. I was very pleased with how our guys up front played on both sides of the ball, though. To go from us struggling against South Greene, to blocking and getting off blocks against the second best team in the state, throughout the course of one season is tremendous.”
The Roadrunners put the game out of reach with another touchdown in the opening moments of the fourth quarter for a 21-0 lead. The Blue Devils would not get on the scoreboard as Austin-East went on to win the game, 33-0.
The win over the Blue Devils will send the Roadrunners to Mountain City to face the Johnson County Longhorns (11-0, 5-0) on Friday, Nov. 10, in the second round of the playoffs. The Longhorns defeated Northview Academy 21-20 on Nov. 3 to advance.
“I thought everyone that played Friday night laid it on the line, which was great to see,” Rice said.
The Blue Devils had 176 offensive yards – 73 in the air and 103 on the ground. Quarterback Brock Thompson was 11-22 passing for 73 yards. Nicholson had 5 catches for 23 yards and 1 carry for 69 yards. Brett Strother had 5 catches for 15 yards and 4 carries for 38 yards. Kody Lewis had 6 carries for 15 yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, Lewis had 17 tackles and Nicholson had 16. Matthew Hatcher had 15; Michael Smith had 9; Edwards had 8 and 1 interception. Shane Armstrong had 8 tackles and 1 sack. Hunter Higgins, Austin O’Dell and Tanner Vanhoy had 5 tackles each.
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Rice said his team met many of the goals they set for the season, but fell short on some others.
“I feel like we did some great things this year, but at the same time I think all of these guys and the coaching staff would tell you that we left some wins out there that we should have gotten,” he said. “We finished third in the region and still feel like we underachieved there.
“We did get our offense balanced which was one of our goals because in 2016 we had a really hard time running the football. We ended up throwing for over 1,400 yards and rushing for 1,350 yards, which is about as balanced as you can get. With all that being said though, I think a great foundation has been laid for where we are trying to get this program.”
Eleven seniors played the final game of their UCHS football careers in Knoxville on Friday.
“They’ve been great,” Rice said of the senior class. “They showed great leadership and an unbelievable commitment to this program. We ask the guys that don’t play other sports to commit five days a week from January through November. In today’s world, that’s rare to find young people willing to give that much of themselves for such a long period of time. It speaks to what kind of young men they are.
“We talk a lot about this game preparing them for life after high school, and how the values they have learned playing this game will be with them for the rest of their lives. Myself and the coaching staff look forward to seeing what comes next for these seniors as they begin the next chapter of their lives.”
The seniors are Thomas Bryant, Bradley Edwards, Matthew Hatcher, Hunter Higgins, Gabe Miller, Owen Nicholson, Scott Owens, Troy Podvin, Hunter Rice, Michael Smith and Christian Yoakley.