Shooting for three in a row… Cyclones kick off 2020 season Friday night against Science Hill
BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
One of the biggest non-conference rivalries in Northeast Tennessee renews once again on Friday night when the Science Hill Hilltoppers travel to Citizens Bank Stadium looking to knock off the Elizabethton Cyclones who will be gunning for their 16th straight victory dating back to 2019 when the Cyclones went 15-0 and won the Class 4-A State Championship in Cookeville.
The ‘Toppers were one of the 15 Cyclone victims last season and come into the game looking to get their season off to a great start under the leadership of head coach Stacy Carter who had to sit out last season’s contest due to being ejected in Science Hill’s 2018 final playoff game.
Elizabethton will be looking to make it three straight against the ‘Toppers as it has been since the 1991-92-93 seasons that the Cyclones managed to accomplish the feat.
The Cyclones come into the contest for the first time in a long while as the favorite returning several key players from last season’s run including junior quarterback Bryson Rollins, senior running back LaDarian Avery, senior wide receivers Parker Hughes and Braden Holly, defensive back Deuce Morton, and the starting offensive line that return three seniors in Wes Erwin, Cole Morganstern, and Colby Garland along with juniors Conner Johnson and Owen Slagle.
With everything going on including limited fan attendance and prayers for all the players, coaches, cheerleaders, and band for safety from COVID-19, there is an excitement brewing throughout the Cyclone community for the start of a football season that many didn’t know if prep football would even be played this fall.
“It’s really a great feeling, especially Elizabethton and Science Hill week at home and the game is going to be on TV and you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Cyclone head coach Shawn Witten said about his team’s first contest.
“We are excited. Our guys have worked hard all summer long. We have a really special group that really worked hard during the COVID the time that they were off.
“I think our guys really cherish the opportunity to be here every morning and work together and really try to mold this team. We have got a great identity. A lot of times you go into the first game really unknown but I think that we really know what we have,” Witten continued.
“It’s a great feeling you know just the opportunity to play in front of your home crowd against Science Hill. The thing that is really disappointing is could you imagine the people that would be here at this game if it wasn’t under these circumstances – it would really be a max capacity and that’s really kind of the unfortunate thing.
“How many people are really going to get the opportunity to view this game on TV around Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia? It’s just a great opportunity for us and our program and our community.”
Entering the contest, obviously, there are a lot of concerns on both sides for both coaches.
In a season unlike any other, teams have mainly been able to condition and lift weights with no 7-on-7’s, scrimmages, or any competition against another opponent in the preseason leaving coaches really scrambling to put together the pieces as best they can.
If one team has the upper-hand in this scenario, it would be the Cyclones as Witten returns many starters who have been tried in the fire while Science Hill will be replacing some pieces to their squad from last season.
But with two superior coaches going head-to-head, the game itself will basically come down to which team makes fewer mistakes and executes their game plan better than their opponent.
“The biggest concern obviously is there have been no scrimmages and no jamborees and not much competing against other teams to gauge where you are at,” Witten said. “A lot of times with younger kids, you really don’t know who can do what until you throw them out there but at the same time we do have experience and we know what we have.
“You just have to be able to play the situations. I think for us, every team is going to do what they do really well and run the plays that you are comfortable with.
“Our guys just kind of go out there and do what they have done all year long,” Witten added. “We know the formula it’s going to take to win the football game and we know the formula it’s going to take to beat a really good football team that’s coming in really hungry to beat us and kind of set their season up.
“We just have to go out there and really do the things that we know how to do and execute the way that we know how to.”
It’s always a chess match when the two long-tenured coaches meet on the gridiron with Carter having an upper hand on Witten over the Cyclone mentor’s coaching career dating back to when Carter coached the Rebels of Sullivan South.
But anyone who knows Witten knows he is a competitor and is closing the gap as Witten has led the Cyclones past recent heartbreaks in post-season playoffs to the promised land last season by bringing home a gold ball to the Cyclone football trophy case.
Yet, that doesn’t change the respect that Witten has for Carter and the teams that he has put on the field.
“It’s tough you know,” stated Witten. “Stacy (Carter) is a good coach and we went decades and didn’t beat them. My record against him is not really great even when he was at South.
“He does a really good job and has really good players and he knows what to do offensively. They have a really good staff. The first game, fatigue and heat will be a factor.
“Obviously, a lot of our better players are going to play a lot of plays and a lot of their best players will play only one way. They have a little more depth and some of those things.
“Really, just to maintain 48 minutes – four quarters – will be critical. Situational football – fourth quarter, fourth down, special teams – there are a lot of things on top of that will play a huge factor but Stacy’s guys are going to be well-coached and hungry against us.”
Without a doubt, Witten would like to win the game to make it three in a row and there couldn’t be any better spotlight to do it under as with football shut down in Virginia and North Carolina and some teams having to sit at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, many eyes will be focused to the NFHS website and other outlets to tune in the marquee matchup.
“We have the opportunity to do that here,” Witten said of the opportunity to pull off the Cyclones third straight win over the ‘Toppers. “It’s a big game and there will be a lot under the spotlight and I am sure that Stacy didn’t coach in the game last year so I am sure he is really motivated on top of that.
“I just think this game gives you a lot of momentum to open the season up. Our guys have done a great job of managing all of the restrictions and the guys are going to be ready to play.”
Witten was asked what he considered to be the major factor that will give an upper hand to one team or the other.
“In the first quarter, the team that can settle down and just plays their game right off the bat is the biggest key,” Witten stated. “They have a new quarterback and everything is kind of new for them. Maybe a few new plays and a new identity for them.
“We know our identity and we know what we have and the people that we have.
“We just have to play our game and our guys have got to try and not do too much. Just play the game, execute, and when their number is called make the most of the opportunity,” Witten continued.
“The team that settles down the quickest will have the advantage. The team that gets rowdy and there is a lot of chaos going on and the game is just going to fast, the team that can allow the game to just slow down the speed of it is going to have the advantage early.”
One area to watch will be special team play. The ‘Toppers have one of the top field goal kickers around in Kade Hensley – a former Cyclone who is now in his senior year at Science Hill.
Hensley has a leg that can beat you in a heartbeat if he is allowed to do so but that is one thing that Witten is hoping his team can prevent that situation from happening.
“We can’t allow that. If there is a 45 or 50-yard field goal to win the game, he can make it. We can’t put that situation on him,” Witten commented on Hensley.
Witten went on to speak of the Cyclone special teams saying, “We have worked really hard on our special teams for a long period of time and we have some dynamic playmakers and kick returners. Field position is going to be huge for us.
“A couple of games last year made us get better and pay attention. You have to win on special teams. The reason we have won these two games against them the last two years is we made them kick field goals.
“Our defense has to hold them to field goals and allow them only three points instead of seven.”
The game is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 pm. Other notable games in the area include Dobyns-Bennett at Tennessee High, David Crockett at
Ooltewah, and CAK at Daniel Boone.
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