Spring yields positive signs for Highlanders

Published 12:01 am Friday, June 20, 2014

Spring yields positive signs for Highlanders

By Wes Holtsclaw


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Cloudland’s football team didn’t need much motivation entering this spring.

The final two games of its previous season was a serving of humble pie. The team is older, experienced and eager to fight its way over conference stronghold Hampton and the likes of South Greene this fall.

According to head coach Brock Pittman, the Highlanders have strong starting depth and showed positive signs at the conclusion of a two-week workout last week.

“I think we improved in a lot of areas,” Pittman said Thursday. “We were able to answer some questions in certain positions where we needed to make some moves with different players and kids in certain spots.

“We still have some questions we need to get figured out in the fall, but we’ve got 15 or 16 kids that are ready to start and we only need 11. That’s a good thing to have.”

In two seasons under Pittman, Cloudland has made a dramatic turnaround. An 8-4 campaign in 2012 with a second-round playoff appearance was followed by a 2013 season that re-engerized the Roan Mountain faithful and showed that Highlander football was on the verge of another breakthrough.

The first nine weeks of the season, the Highlanders reeled off win after win — knocking off the likes of rival Avery County (NC), Happy Valley, Johnson County and South Greene to set up a conference showdown at home against rival Hampton.

Favored entering the game, turnovers doomed Cloudland in a 21-12 loss that maintained the Bulldogs’ perch. In the second round of the 1-A playoffs, mistakes again bit CHS in a 26-14 loss to Midway.

Make no mistake, the two losses served as a cold, hard reminder to the returning players and seemingly sparked the offseason.

“We won nine in a row then we lost our last two, both at home,” Pittman said. “In those two home losses, combined, we had 11 turnovers. We focused and focused on the little things like turnovers and playing good defense. If we can keep focused on that, I think we can improve.

“If you can play good, solid defense and limit turnovers, you can win. That’s our philosophy — to make fewer mistakes than the other team. In the last two games, we made a ton of mistakes. Our goal is to stay focused throughout the season all the way through. We’re definitely going to try to fix that and have a run like we did last year.”

With the losses of longtime starters Mason Carnett and ETSU signee Asley Haynes, among others, the Highlanders did some shifting around up front and in some defensive positions over the spring.

A newcomer such as Jonah Woods, rising sophomores Noah Arnett and Preston Benfield along with seniors Hez Street and Austin Simerly were among those to show positive signs going forward.

“I’ve moved some guys around up front that played last year,” Pittman said. “We’ve got a new player Jonah Woods and he played basketball, he’s a big body, he’s really athletic and is going to help us.

“All of the rest of our guys up front are coming back, guys who have started at some point last year. Defensively, we’ve moved some people around. One of our best defensive players is Hez Street. We’ve got to figure out where to put him. This spring we had him at inside linebacker, but he could easily go down to the defensive line if we needed some help there. He’s one of our best players and a guy that nobody really knows about.

“For the first time since I’ve been here, we don’t have a freshman that’s going to start. That’s kind of big for us. The rising sophomores you’ve got Noah Arnett who is going to be a great player, Preston Benfield stepped up a whole lot since last fall. He will play corner and wide receiver. And Austin Simerly will be a huge help for us at multiple positions really.”

For Cloudland to be successful, however, it will need another strong season from the talented trio of junior All-State quarterback Austin Whitehead, junior tailback Colby Birchfield and hard-hitting senior Zac Benfield on both sides of the ball.

“They’ve all made improvements,” Pittman said. “Those three guys all need to have the ball. If we can figure out a way to spread the ball out between those three guys and the other skill kids we have around them — the bottom line is Austin Whitehead is probably one of the best players around here at any level. People are going to be keying on him. That’s fine. The thing that Austin needs to understand is the level of talent he has around him. We’re not a one dimensional football team.”

Cloudland’s spring including a strong scrimmage showing against Unicoi County followed by last Friday’s annual Blue and Gold Game at Orr Field, which came down to a last-minute drive led by backup quarterback Arnett for a Gold victory.

Pittman said the two teams, divided evenly, played a strong game on both sides of the football with minimal mistakes — things that can be fixed over summer workouts and during practice leading up to the season.

“The fact that nobody got hurt was huge,” added the coach. “We got out of there healthy. The kids played hard and had fun.

Before the start of the regular season the Highlanders will continue working out in the weight room and preparing for the annual 7-on-7 competition that will be held at Hampton in July.

Perhaps the biggest test this summer for Cloudland arrives on August 1 with a trip to the Stone Castle to match up against a much larger 5-A Tennessee High squad in a preseason scrimmage.

“I wanted to really challenge our kids in a scrimmage,” Pittman said. “We had a scrimmage (this spring) at Unicoi and we did very well in that scrimmage. But I want our kids to get the best challenge they can get before the season starts, so I got it put in stone last week, we’re going to Bristol August 1 to scrimmage in the Castle.

“That will be great for us. They have a great program with great athletes. I want our kids to be challenged. I don’t feel like if you go down and scrimmage somebody and beat them two nothing, then all of your players get on the bus and feel real good. It doesn’t do you any good. I want the kids to be challenged early and it gives us a chance to play on turf.”

The scrimmage should help the Highlanders in their season opener August 22 on the turf at Avery. Home dates this season include Happy Valley, Cosby, Johnson County, Unaka and South Greene with trips to Tri-Cities Christian, North Greene, Hancock and Hampton in the season finale on Halloween.