‘Landers excite home crowd during round one of the TSSAA state playoffs

Published 12:25 am Saturday, November 6, 2021

BY NIC MILLER
STAR STAFF
nic.miller@elizabethton.com
ROAN MOUNTAIN – One week ago, the Cloudland Highlanders capped off their 2021 regular season with a dominating win over North Greene that would crown them as the Region 1 Class 1-A champions.

And this Friday, the Highlanders would reap the reward of their hard work, hosting round one of the TSSAA playoffs in Roan Mountain as they took on the Cherokees of Greenback in a win-or-go-home situation.

Cloudland received possession first and the strategy of the first drive would be to chew the clock with the ‘Landers taking six minutes off the scoreboard before Caleb Sluder broke away from the defense for a 12-yard score to give the squad from Roan Mountain a 6-0 advantage early.

And it seemed as if Greenback would answer back on their first possession but a hearty stop by the Cloudland defense on fourth down would be just good enough, stalling the Cherokees only inches away from the first-down marker.

Nevertheless, it was back to work for the Highlanders as Seth Birchfield only needed one play to do his thing, scoring from 70 yards out on the first play of the drive. This time the ‘Landers two-point try would be successful with Sluder waltzing across the goal line to make it 14-0 late in the first period.

And just before the quarter came to a close, the Highlander defense would step up again when Dylan Shell intercepted a ball from Kooper Williams at the 33- yard line and would take the ball all the way down inside the five to the two-yard line as time expired on the scoreboard.

From there, Birchfield would do it again on the first play of the second quarter diving across the goal line for the score. Sluder added on two more, giving the ‘Landers a 22-0 lead to start the second stanza.

Scoring resumed midway through the second after a mishap on a Cloudland punt deep in their own territory would give the Cherokees possession just outside the red zone.

From there, Williams would find Braden Matoy from 17 yards out for the score. The two-point try was true with the Highlander advantage being cut to 22-8 with six minutes to go before the half.

A high-scoring first half, Cloudland scored once more on another quick drive that would start with a 46-yard rush from Birchfield and would be capped off with a nine-yard rushing score giving Cloudland a 28-8 advantage in the second.

And just before the break, Cloudland took over in enemy territory after a fake punt by the Cherokees, a drive that was more methodical but had the same result, a touchdown.

Birchfield capped things off with a two-yard score, one that would be followed with Birchfield also scoring the extra two, giving the ‘Landers a 36-8 lead at the halftime break.

To start the second half of action, Greenback struck first on the first drive of the half when Williams found James from 19-yards out for the score. The same connection would be made for the two-point try, making it 38-16 with eight minutes to go in the third.

Cloudland continued their scoring efforts midway through the third period when Birchfield broke off another long run, this time into the end zone from 37 yards away, giving the ‘Landers a 42-16 advantage.

While it would not greatly affect the outcome, Greenback scored one more time before the game concluded with Williams scoring from four yards out and Matoy tacking on two more with four minutes to go decreasing the ‘Lander lead to 42-24.

That concluded scoring for the remainder of the matchup, making the final score a 42-24 final in favor of Cloudland.

In the win, Birchfield finished his night with 189 yards as well as four touchdowns, while Sluder totaled 70 yards and three touchdowns.

Highlanders head coach Zac Benfield spoke on his team’s performance in the big win post-game.

“I told our guys that if we played a perfect first quarter and were able to finish strong, then we could win this game. All of our linemen and blocking backs played their buts off up front tonight, and the defense adjusted so well to Greenback’s speed on offense.

“Greenback has had a winning culture for years, so I am excited that we got the win and I am very pleased with how we played.”

And while the work for this week may be done, Benfield explained that it is on to the next one for his team.

“I told the kids that we have to build off of tonight. It was a great win but we can not be satisfied, as the best teams get better in November and do not stay the same.”