Cloudland slips through fingers of upset-minded Unaka

Published 10:29 am Friday, October 27, 2023

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ROAN MOUNTAIN – It took a full 47:53 second game to determine who was going to come out on top of a wild and crazy game between two county and Region 1 1-A rivals at Orr Field on Thursday night between the Unaka Rangers and the Cloudland Highlanders.

After the Rangers snared a 14-6 halftime advantage, the defense for both teams disappeared in the second half as the Highlanders managed to stay unbeaten in region play with a 40-30 victory over the visiting Rangers on Senior Night.

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One knew it was going to be a crazy night as just before the slated kickoff of the contest, some balloons found a way to trip a transformer darkening the field and pushing the start time back for around 20 minutes as heroes from Mountain Electric quickly responded to get the lights back up for Thursday night football action.

The first half was a defensive struggle filled with big-time hits and critical stops by both teams’ defensive units as Unaka managed to give an early surprise to their hosts.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Rangers struck first when quarterback Brynin Repass found a crease in the Cloudland defense and raced 21 yards to pay dirt. The two-point conversion failed and the Rangers led 6-0 with 8:11 remaining before the half.

The Rangers tacked on their second score of the half when Repass found Isaiah White on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 1:51 remaining before the half and an AJ Greenless two-point conversion was good making the score 14-0 Rangers.

Cloudland needed something, anything, to get themselves and their crowd back into the ball game and got just what the doctor ordered just 35 seconds before the half when freshman Grayson Cole raced 24 yards for the first score of the night for the Highlanders.

With a failed conversion attempt, both teams went to the half with the scoreboard reading 14-6 in favor of the Rangers.

Needing an infusion of life, the ‘Landers came out of the locker room and once again turned to Cole who reeled off another 24-yard scamper for a score and then converted the two-point conversion to even the ball game at 14-14 with 6:32 remaining in the third quarter.

Heading into the fourth quarter, with the game hanging in the balance, one could tell Halloween was right around the corner as the game came unhinged offensively for both teams.

Cloudland finally managed to snare its first lead of the night just 1:38 into the fourth quarter when quarterback Bryce Birchfield found Walker Gouge on a wide open 46-yard bomb to roll the scoreboard to 20-14 after a failed conversion attempt.

It looked like Cloudland was going to run away with the game when Cole romped 31 yards for another ‘Lander score less than two minutes later to make it a 26-14 game with 8:24 left to play in the contest.

However, the Rangers dug down and playing with the same grit they had played with all night answered the score when Greenless pushed across the goal line on a four-yard run and Repass converted the two-point attempt to close the score to 26-22 with 7:25 left to play.

Cole just kept coming however for the Highlanders as this time he carried the mail 51 yards for a ‘Lander score and Kyle Birchfield bulled his way into the end zone for the two-point conversion pushing the lead back to a 12-point game, 34-22.

The Rangers weren’t about to give up as just like squeezing an orange for juice, the Stoney Creek team was going to leave everything on the field for this battle.

Unaka went to work and pulled to within four points, 34-30, when Repass placed a perfect pass into the arms of Greenlesson a 26-yard scoring pass with just 3:44 left to play. Greenless converted the two-point conversion.

Cloudland would respond on the ensuing kickoff thanks in part to a defensive blocking below the waist call on a tackle by a Unaka defender on a Cloudland running back that brought two more unsportsmanlike conduct penalties following the controversial call putting the ‘Landers at the two-yard line.

The Unaka defense got a little sneaky as they completely backed off the line of scrimmage inviting the ‘Landers to score so they could get the ball back and instead of taking a knee to let the clock expire, the ‘Landers took the bait as Kyle Birchfield walked across the goal line to make it a 40-30 game with 50 seconds left to play.

Unfortunately, penalties hurt the Rangers who were unable to push any further points across the goal line as the game ended.

Cole finished the contest with 20 carries for 212 yards and four scores while Kyle Birchfield had 26 carries for 196 yards.

“We are undisciplined and uncoachable,” said Cloudland head coach Zac Benfield who obviously was upset despite the win. “We are not competitive and that is how it is. Unaka played hard and threw the football well and their backs ran hard because they were hard to tackle. Coach (O’Brien) Bennett did a really good job game planning.”

The Highlanders go into next week’s first round of the BlueCross Football Championship playoffs hosting Greenback while the Rangers will be on the road at Coalfield. Both games will kick off at 7 pm.