By Keeli Parkey
One of the best seasons in recent memory for a Unicoi County High School football team has come to an end. The Blue Devils (9-3) lost to the three-time defending state champion Alcoa Tornadoes, 56-0, on the road on Friday, Nov. 9, in the second round of the playoffs.
“It was a rough outing, but we knew what we were up against,” head coach Drew Rice said of the loss. “They are going to win their fourth straight state championship in December. If you are gonna get put out of the playoffs, losing to the eventual state champion isn’t the worst way to be put out.”
Alcoa (12-0) jumped on the Blue Devils from kickoff, taking a 21-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and a 42-0 lead at halftime.
“They are just so talented, and there were no weak links to take advantage of,” Rice said. “That’s the strongest team we have ran into in my time coaching. We have made great strides in the weight room in that last two years, but it shows we still aren’t where we want to be.”
A bright spot in the loss was the performance of junior Kody Lewis, who rushed for 104 yards, bringing his season total to 2,025 yards. He also scored 24 touchdowns this season, which set the UCHS record for a single season, all without one fumble.
“I thought Kody rushing for over 100 yards against the best team in the state was pretty impressive,” Rice said. “He also passed the 2,000-yard mark for the season which is just incredible. Brett Strother really laid it all on the line. He played like a senior is supposed to in their last game. He proved he belonged on that level and I believe he will be playing on Saturdays come next fall.”
Against Alcoa, the UCHS offense had only 125 yards. Alcoa’s offense went for 382 yards. The Tornadoes advanced to face Austin-East in the 3A playoffs quarterfinal game on Friday, Nov. 16.
Playing against the best in the state was a learning experience, which will be beneficial for the players returning next season.
“I think it’s a great reminder that you are never as good as you think you may be, and that there is always someone out there who is better,” Rice said. “So you have to use that to motivate yourself to always get better.”
While the disappointment of the loss to Alcoa is certainly felt by the UCHS players and coaches, that doesn’t diminish the quality of the 2018 season by the team. In addition to having the first winning season for the program since 1996, the Blue Devils won nine games for the first time since 1985, hosted the first playoff game at Gentry Stadium since 1991, earned the program’s first playoff victory since 1985 and made it to the Sweet 16 for TSSAA.
“Overall, I think it was a great year for us,” Rice said. “We obviously would have liked for a few things to turn out differently, but we were certainly blessed to have the year we had. It says a lot about our guys and their commitment to each other.”
Playing a major role in the team’s success this season was its ground game, according to the head coach.
“I think the biggest difference was our ability to run the football effectively,” Rice said. “Kody rushed for over 2,000 yards and we had over 4,300 yards of total offense for the year which is just incredible. Kody breaking the single-season rushing record for both yards and touchdowns in a single season, is huge for him and our program moving forward.”
The loss to Alcoa was the final game for the team’s seniors– Shane Armstrong, Brady Deyton, Easton Edwards, Ikey Edwards, Jordan Hensley, Drew Keasling, Gavin Keasling, Danny Lowery, Austin O’Dell, Justin Pike, Martin Porras, Garrett Shelton, Strother, Ty Thelen, Zeb Tipton, Noah White and Drew Williams.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Rice said of the seniors. “They were the first group in school history to make the playoffs all four years, which is tremendous to think about.
“Noah White has been playing on a torn ACL since the West Greene game. That sort of commitment, and want to from an 18-year-old kid, is why we were successful this year. He has been a rock for this program for the last two years and I hope our young guys can learn a lot from the example he and the other seniors set.
“We had a lot of guys play through some nagging injuries all year and it just speaks volumes about their commitment to their teammates and our football program. They laid a tremendous foundation for future success.”