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Super Highlanders: Cloudland hoping no foe can stand against it

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 31, 2014 at 10:22 PM

“Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Austin Whitehead, Cloudland quarterback.”

Whitehead and his superhero-themed teammates hope to lead the Highlanders to Mountain East Conference and state championships this season. Instead of battling villians in Metropolis and Gotham City, the cast of characters from Roan Mountain will take on foes from the likes of Hampton and South Greene.

A group of players showed up at the team’s annual media day on Thursday wearing Under Armour shirts and cleats designed to represent their favorite superheroes. Jonah Woods, an offensive and defensive lineman dressed as The Hulk, explained that Whitehead first wore the Superman garb and it soon caught on with the rest of the group.

“Austin bought his Superman stuff first and we all decided to go with it,” Woods said. “He wanted us to be something to symbolize our positions. The quarterback is the leader like Superman and I’m like The Hulk, a big guy who messes stuff up all the time. Zac Benfield is the quick guy so he’s Flash. Matt Houston is smart like Batman and Cameron Stevens provides the shield like Captain America.”

The group of superheroes face sky-high expectations after the Highlanders spent a large portion of last season ranked No. 2 in the state in the Class 1A poll. They were 9-0 before a loss to Hampton in the final week of the regular season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Whitehead was certainly the team’s Superman much of the season. It was definitely the case in Week Four when he was named Player of the Week for all of Northeast Tennessee after accounting for 427 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in a 45-21 win over Unaka.

Still, he doesn’t plan to do it alone this season, promising to keep his teammates involved.

“We have a bunch of weapons this year,” Whitehead said. “We’re going to spread the ball around a lot and we have a bunch of people to get the ball to. We have a really athletic team.”

Benfield, the standout wide receiver and defensive back, is one of those athletes he’s talking about.

Both Benfield and Whitehead are preseason All-State selections, although they, in true Justice League form, are focused on team goals. The goals are set pretty high as well.

“We don’t really have individual goals,” Benfield explained. “We want to win a state championship. A lot of times people think we just want to beat Hampton or whatever. That’s just another game on our schedule. We are going to be working every week on a goal of winning a state championship.”

Benfield explained they’re a close-knit group, enjoying success on both the football field and basketball court. It was something that Houston emphasized as well. He said that playing both sports through the years has given them a special brotherhood and it was no surprise they all bought into the superhero theme.

“We’re best friends on and off the field, and we all think alike,” said Houston, a slot receiver on offense and linebacker on defense. “A lot of people might think it’s childish to wear something like that on a football field, but we wanted to be a little different and kind of stick out.”

Stevens, a left guard on the offensive line as well as a defensive end, had a simple reason for picking Captain America. More than any defined role, his choice was a personal preference.

“He’s my favorite one,” Stevens said. “I’ve always liked him since I was little.”

While they all had fun playing the superhero part and hamming it up for the cameras, they’re all serious about the season. They want to be successful for their school, their community as well as themselves.

“A lot of people expect a lot out of us,” Woods said. “We expect it out of ourselves. We’ve worked hard, practiced hard and have been in the weight room all summer. We’ve had success and we just want to keep it going.”

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