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Let’s get it on… Cyclones, Hilltoppers set to clash in 2021 season opener

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
It doesn’t matter how many times the name is changed or where the game is played, whenever Elizabethton and Science Hill get together to play football fans can count on a game that will be fast-paced, slobber-knocking in the trenches, and more than likely come down to the final quarter of play to decide the winner.

The game this year is being called the Railroad Rumble and will be played at William B. Greene Stadium on the campus of East Tennessee State University due to Science Hill working on their turf.

Game time is set 30 minutes earlier than normal regular-season games and will begin at 7 pm.

Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten is fully aware of what waits for his team when they travel to Johnson City to open the 2021 season.

“I think the biggest thing in a game like this is always the preparation,” said Witten who is entering his 15th season at the helm of the Cyclones. “The guys have got to block out the noise and get themselves ready to play and focus on the details.

“There is a lot of hype on the game and it’s the first game of the year. We just have got to get our guys prepared to understand that what goes on on the outside, there is still a game to be played.

“It’s a tough challenge,” Witten continued. “Science Hill has got a really got football team that returns over 30 seniors with a lot more experience coming back than we do. At the same time, anytime you mention the word Science Hill, our guys get ready to play for sure.”

The game is a milestone as it will be the first high school game to be played on the turf at ETSU. That makes it an extra-special contest for both teams who have earned the right to compete there.

“The first time a high school game at ETSU stadium and there are a lot of great football games this year and great football teams and we are the first ones that get to do it,” Witten shared. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our program to put itself out there. Our kids have worked really hard to get themselves there and I think for us to compete on that stage shows how far our program has come in the last 10 years.

“There was a time that we went a decade and didn’t beat Johnson City and now we have got three up on them in a row. Just the size of the schools talks about our kid’s character.

“For us to even be able to compete with Johnson City that has 2,500 kids. Here we are barely sniffing 900. Just the type of people that we have and the character that we play with and the way we go about our program is just crazy to think that we could compete on that stage. It’s just a credit to how hard our guys work.”

Also at stake for the Cyclones entering the contest is a 30 consecutive game win streak covering the last two seasons where the Cyclones captured the Class 4A State Championship in each.

Witten knows that the Hilltoppers would love nothing better than to end that streak as well as the three straight losses they have suffered at the hands of Elizabethton.

“They are very talented. You are talking about a team that lost only a player each on both sides and they have experience. A year ago was Jaxton Diamond’s first game against us and they are the same team that scored four touchdowns against Greeneville,” commented Witten.

“It’s the same group of people that played in 6A football. If there is a lack of focus, it’s not going to be good on our end. I think it just comes down to execution and discipline. The guys have to prepare for their one on one battles and we have to find the way to hang in there in that type of approach.

“We are going to have to fight and scratch and claw our way and at times it may not look pretty. We just have to find a way to make it happen and make it work.”

For the Cyclones to continue their winning ways, Witten will be turning to a different group than what he had last season to take over the reigns of departed seniors Parker Hughes, Brayden Holly, Cole Morganstern, Wesley Erwin, and others that were a key cog in those two state championships.

“We have some new faces and new names, but that is why we play high school football,” Witten added. “It’s time for the next guys to step up to motivate us in the right direction.

“Guys like Trenton Taylor, Bryson Rollins, Jake Roberts, Nate Stephens, Cade Russell, and Dalton Mitchell who are all upperclassmen. Owen Slagle and Conner Johnson are others. We are proud of all of our guys and believe they can go and get the job done.”