Head coach Drew Rice talks to Kody Lewis on the sideline of a UCHS football game during the 2019 season. (File photo)

By Keeli Parkey

In the days following their season-ending loss, several Unicoi County High School football players were recognized by the teams and coaches of Region 1-AAA for their efforts on the gridiron.

Among the award recipients, according to UCHS head coach Drew Rice, was Kody Lewis, who received the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award. During his standout career as a Blue Devil, Lewis had 5,187 total yards and scored 61 touchdowns. He had more than 100 yards in a game 17 times, more than 200 yards five times and had two games with more than 300 yards. He was also a force on defense with 261 tackles. The team won 25 games during his career.

“Kody is a generational talent. To be able to run like he can, is simply a God-given ability,” Rice said. “A kid could train from the time they are 4 years old every single day, and still never run a legitimate 4.4 forty like he does. Now to his credit, he has taken his natural gifts and tried to max them out. He is a warrior in the weight room. He is probably the strongest kid pound for pound I have ever coached. I have said for the last two years, that his individual success has been in direct correlation with our team’s success.

“I’ve been asked that question by a lot of people about where he ranks in the history of the program, and I always say that I can’t really speak to all the great players that played here long before I was born, and long before my parents were even born,” Rice continued. “However, I believe he is still one of the best players to ever play here. Statistically, he has some staggering numbers for his career.”

L.J. Mitchell was named the region’s Defensive Player of the Year. During the 2019 season, Mitchell had 79 tackles, 11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.

Miguel Vasquez received the Specialist of the Year award. This season he made 49-54 of his extra-point attempts.

Blue Devils named to the Region 1-AAA first team were: Zhante Breedlove, Rodrigo Castellon, Diego Diaz, Lane Garland, Michael Harrington, Roby Lemmon, Brock Thompson and Peyton Whitson.

Players named to the Region 1-AAA second team were: Evan Huff, Esteban Mendoza, Matthew Sellars and Isaiah Smith.

Dakoda Bell received academic all-region honors.

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After losing the first two games of the season, the Blue Devils finished the season with an overall record of 6-5. They took second place in the region with a 4-1 record.

The 2019 season was the first time in 30 years the program had back-to-back winning seasons. And, it was the fifth consecutive with at least five wins for the UCHS program. The last time the Blue Devils did that was 1985-89.

“I guess the biggest thing I will always credit this team with is how they stayed the course after an 0-2 start, and still went on to have a winning season and finished second in our league,” Rice said. “Another thing I am very proud of is how they played Happy Valley and Johnson County, beating them both by a combined score of 69-0. That’s our two biggest rivals, and it’s even bigger when you consider how much we have struggled against those two teams in recent years.”

The team’s sole region loss came at the hands of Chuckey-Doak in the final minutes of a back-and-forth battle played in Afton on Oct. 4. Rice, who has a 23-18 overall record as head coach, said it was one of the toughest losses since he took over the Blue Devil program in 2016.

“We haven’t lost many close games in the last three years. For the most part, if the game has been close in the fourth quarter, we have found a way to win,” Rice said. “That logic obviously didn’t hold true that night though. We got down two touchdowns in the first half, and then were up 10 with six minutes left. And then to get beat on a tipped ball with 18 seconds left was just brutal, and that game ended up being for the region championship. That game still keeps me up at night, and probably always will.”

The second place finish in the region gave the Blue Devils a home playoff game for the second consecutive season. It was in the first round of the playoffs where their season came to an end with a loss to Gatlinburg-Pittman.

A lot of the credit for the team’s success in 2019 goes to its seniors, according to Rice.

“These seniors were just a tremendous group of workers,” Rice said. “They only won one game in three years when they were in middle school, and then to end up winning 25 games in their four years of high school is really something. It says a whole lot about their resolve and their commitment. Making the playoffs every year they were in high school, and hosting the first round both their junior and senior seasons is really something to be proud of.”

Quarterback Brock Thompson was also a key player in the Blue Devils’ success this season, according to the head coach.

“I will always be the first to give Brock a ton of credit for our success. He has so much put on him,” Rice said. “We signal every play in, almost always have some sort of motion and then has to get the ball wherever it is supposed to get to. All in less than 25 seconds or so. He really made a difference for us when we started playing him in the secondary as well. We were 6-2 in games that he was playing free safety for us. We are blessed to have him one more year.”

Others were also key cogs in the UCHS offense.

“Diego Diaz, Peyton Whitson, Evan Huff, L.J. Mitchell, Tanner VanHoy and Tracy Vanover all deserve a lot of recognition on the offensive side of the ball,” Rice said. “We averaged almost 35 points a game, which is tremendous, so that does not happen without guys who can get the ball and go do something meaningful with it.

“Our offensive line of Roby Lemmon, Michael Harrington, Nick Farnor, Dakoda Bell and Rodrigo Castellon paved the way for us. They were rock solid. We are going to miss some of those guys very badly as we transition into next year.”

The Blue Devil defense was also solid thanks to several players.

“Our defensive line of L.J. Mitchell, Zhante Breedlove, Michael Harrington and Rodrigo Castellon were tremendous as well,” Rice said. “Roby Lemmon and Lane Garland were two seniors at linebacker that did every single thing we ever asked of them, and did it well. They both were everything you could ever ask for in two young men. Robbie O’Dell, Matthew Sellars, and Tanner VanHoy were all big for us in the secondary as well.”

The UCHS junior varsity team posted a record of 4-3 during the 2019 season.

“I thought our young guys really got better as their season progressed,” Rice said of the JV squad. “Our last couple of JV games compared to our first couple were not even close. It was exciting to watch them get better every single week.”

Serving as assistant coaches during the 2019 season were Malcolm Foreman, Jason Hensley, Brandon Adams, Mark Peterson, Jordan Cooper, Eric Tilson, Trevor Berry and Austin Hensley.

• • •

It won’t be long before the program begins preparations for the 2020 season.

“We will get back in the weight room in a couple of weeks,” Rice said. “Our guys who are not in other sports, will be in there five days a week from January to next November. It’s a tremendous grind, and it’s certainly not for everyone. We will continue to emphasize adding strength, size and explosion. As well as a great focus on injury prevention, we have made tremendous strides concerning that in the last three seasons.”

Rice also said he and the coaching staff want to continue to build on the success of the last three seasons.

“I think we are really building a culture of hard work, discipline and accountability. My hope is that the success we have had will only lead to more success,” he added. “Our middle school program has won six games the last two seasons, so we look forward to what we can do with the talent that we currently have coming up.

“The only realistic goal we have not achieved yet is a region championship. So, that is our focus and that is what we are going to use to keep us hungry and motivated on those days in February when they may not feel like lifting weights, or those days in July when its 95 degrees outside and they don’t feel like practicing in the heat,” Rice continued. “More than anything though, I hope we are building great young men. If we can build young men who will go out and be great fathers and husbands later in life, then what we do on the football field will take care of itself.”

The planned improvements at Gentry Stadium also have Rice excited for the 2020 season.

“I think we are going to have one of the nicest stadiums for a school our size in the state,” he said. “I think that it will instill a lot of pride in the program, and get even more middle and elementary school-aged kids playing football. I hope it creates a great viewing experience for our fans as well.”