Highlanders fall 35-34 to Avery in Thriller

Published 12:16 am Saturday, September 10, 2016


Friday’s night game between Avery County and Cloudland will be a game that Viking and Highlander fans will be talking about for years to come.

In a contest that came down to the final seconds, the Vikings pulled out a shocking 35-34 win to break a three-game losing skid and a three-game losing streak in the Cloudland/Avery series.

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“All week long we talked to the boys about finishing strong,” Avery head coach Jason Phelps said. “ . . . We worked hard all week. I know we overcame some adversity tonight. But we finished strong.”

The game-winnings series by Avery would come in the final minute of the game. Up 34-28, the Highlanders were marching down the field and chewing up time. However, a busted play on the Vikings 25 would allow Avery’s Christian Hicks to scoop up a fumble and run it down to the Highlanders 20. After two incomplete passes by the Vikings, Hicks would connect a pass to Brett Smith, who would push the ball on down to the Highlanders 1-yard line. On the ensuing play, Hicks would roll out to the left and connect a 1-yard touchdown pass to Smith to tied the game up at 34, before Vikings’ Steven Sanchez booted through the PAT to give the Vikings a 35-34 lead with just 11 seconds on the clock.

After a touchback on the kickoff, the Highlanders would take the ball on the 20 before snapping off one more play that would come up short.

“Two stupid mistakes, two fumbles, you can’t win doing that,” said Cloudland head coach Mike Lunsford. “We were driving it into score and they couldn’t slow us down. We just beat ourselves.”

The stats from Friday night’s game tell a completely different story than what the scoreboard told. The Highlanders offense outgained the Vikings’ offense 439 to 192. On the ground, Cloudland senior running back Noah Arnett racked up 342 yards on 37 touches with four touchdowns. Cloudland QB Preston Benfield finished the night with 96 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown.

Coming out of halftime, the Vikings held a small 21-18 lead. The Highlanders would stop Avery’s first drive of the second half before Noah Arnett busted in a 2-yard TD run to give his team a 26-21 lead with 5:24 left in the third.

The Highlanders would stop the Viking again as Benfield picked off a pass from Hicks allowing Cloudland to take a 13 point lead after an 8-play, 50-yard drive that was capped off by a 9-yard TD run by Arnett.

Heading into the fourth, the Highlanders held a 34-28 lead. However, the Vikings (1-3) quickly scored in the final quarter as Avery’s Ethan Johnson scored on a 5-yard run and with Sanchez kicking in the PAT the Vikings narrowed the margin to 34-28 with 11 minutes left to play.

For the Vikings, Sam McCollum led the way on the ground with 94 yards on five touches. Hicks finished the night with 91 yards passing on 7-of-15 throws.

The first half was just as exciting as the second as the teams alternated touchdowns in the first quarter with Cloudland taking a 12-6 lead into the second period.

The second quarter saw Avery score back-to-back touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead before Cloudland scored on a 2-yarder by Arnett to close the gap to 21-18 heading into the half.

Next week the Highlanders(1-3, 1-0) will travel to Concord for a conference match up.

“We just have to come in Monday and forget about it,” Lunsford said. “We have to get ready for our next because it a conference game.”