The Highlanders see their season slip away

Published 11:53 pm Friday, November 11, 2022

Ron Marvel
Star Correspondent

Each team has developed a characteristic or two that will tell their story for future years. For the 2022 Cloudland Highlanders (6-5) their quality according to Coach Zac Benfield has been the ability to overcome obstacles and challenges. From a shocking loss to the Happy Valley Warriors in week 1 to losing at one point in the season seven players, these Highlanders have stared adversity in the face with their fair share this year. Knowing this, it was probably no surprise that they would play the second round of the TSSAA playoffs in the remnants of Hurricane Nicole. Though they battled back several times, the combination of the Oliver Springs Bobcats and the weather proved to be too much to overcome as they fell 35-12 on a soaked Orr Field.

The Highlanders won the toss and deferred to the second half.  The Oliver Springs Bobcats received the short kickoff at their 38-yard line and went to work starting with a 24-yard run by Jaxon Jett. With the Bobcats deep in Highlander territory, the first turnover of the game took place after a Highlanders Cayden Clarke strip, giving the Highlanders first down at their own 18. Quarterback Gage McKinney looked to pad his 2570 yards on the season, but Austin Caraway saw a 15- yard pass bounce off his hands forcing a punt. Unfortunately, a bad snap, the first of several, gave the Bobcats the ball at the Highlander 26 after an eight-yard gain Senior Bobcats QB Kane Gouge hit Nick Johnson with an eight-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the endzone to take a 7 -0 lead after a successful PAT. Cloudland after starting at midfield drove the ball to the Bobcats 34-yard line, but Gage McKinney fumbled the ball giving the ball back to the Bobcats at the 31. It only took one play for the Bobcats to pad their lead; a 68-yard TD pass from Gouge to Dakota Atkins made the new score 14-0 with the PAT. Once again good starting position for the Highlanders saw them take over at the Bobcats 46 -yard line. The first quarter ended with the Highlanders driving to the Bobcats nine-yard line.
As the second quarter started, the Highlanders were looking to get on the scoreboard and cut the Bobcats lead in half. From the five-yard line Gage McKinney danced into the endzone however the two-point conversion failed on a McKinney sack provided by Bobcats Linebacker Lucas Thacker. Looking for a defensive stop, the Highlanders Gage McKinney showed how versatile of a player he is with an interception, mugging the ball away from the Bobcats wide receiver and taking over at their own 26-yard line.  Converting a key fourth down by inches the Highlanders continued their march to the Bobcats 22-yard line but a pass attempt on fourth and long harmlessly hit the ground when Highlanders Kingston Cole slipped in the mud on his inside cut. The Bobcats quickly responded when Junior Dakota Atkins sprinted 48 yards to the endzone extending their lead to 21-6 with 4:15 left in the half. The Highlanders continued to struggle with the larger defensive line of the Bobcats as Gage McKinney who has made defenses miserable all year long with long runs was consistently met by Bobcats in the backfield. Facing third and long the Highlanders once again turned the ball over after getting to the Bobcats 48-yard line. With time running out in the second half Bobcats QB Gouge hit Jaxon Jett on a 34-yard quick out and then QB Kane Gouge bounced off a tackle from the 6-yard line and leaned into the endzone to extend the lead to 28-6 at the half. It was a half that saw the Highlanders struggle in the weather conditions and outgained 229-94. Gage McKinney accounted for all but two of those 94 yards, having 27 carries and a 3.4-yard average per carry.
Kyle Birchfield started off the second half with a kick-off return to set up the Highlanders at their 48-yard line. As off and on showers turned into a driving rain, McKinney scampered for 23 yards run, which was set up by the block of Sophomore Guard Sean Miller. A 15-yard face mask placed the ball on the Bobcats 15-yard line; the drive was then finished off by a powerful 12-yard run by Cayden Clarke after the failed two-point conversion the new score stood at 28-12 Bobcats. The Bobcats looking to run some time off the clock drove to the Highlanders 18-yard line, but a bad snap led to a fumble recovery by Highlander’s line-backer Camden Peppers. The Highlanders found success on their next drive by spreading the ball around to tailbacks Camden Peppers and Cayden Clarke driving the ball to the Bobcats 8-yard line to end the third quarter.
The final stanza began with a bad snap over the head of Highlander QB McKinney giving the ball back to the Bobcats at their own 34-yard, the Highlanders third turnover of the night. The Highlanders were able to take over after a Jacob Street stop on fourth and four on the Bobcat 42-yard line. With eight minutes left the Highlanders facing fourth and 13 turned the ball over on downs. After the stop, Jaxon Jett broke off a 62-yard run down the heart of the Highlander defense making the score 35-12 after the PAT. After yet another turnover this time off the pass attempt by Highlander Gage McKinney. The Bobcats took the clock down to the 3:13 minute mark before punting back to the Highlanders.  The Highlanders drove the ball to the Bobcats 31-yard line before being stopped by another turnover, their fifth of the night.
For the Oliver Springs Bobcats, they will move on to Coalfield next week. For the Highlanders, they finish their season at 6-6. Gage McKinney finished off his senior high school career with rushing yards 2677 yards. After the game Coach Benfield said, “It seems like each time we had momentum we would have a bad snap to set us back; no one’s fault in this weather it’s just one of those things.” When asked about how he thought these 2022 would be remembered he replied “when we were 3-5 everyone counted us out, but we kept fighting; these three seniors Jacob Street, Gage McKinney and Cayden Clarke battled consistently all season long in the face of adversity, they worked and worked and worked, I will cherish these three young men and remember them all my life”

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