The Elizabethton Cyclones stayed focused on the task at hand on Friday night.
So did the Hampton Bulldogs.
While the fans of both football programs have already been talking about potential Week 10 showdowns for conference championships, the coaches and players kept their noses to the grindstone in respective league openers.
Elizabethton (2-1) cruised to a 49-0 victory over Sullivan East in its Three Rivers Conference opener. Hampton (1-2) beat up on county rival Unaka 48-6 to start Mountain East Conference play.
Looking ahead to a potential matchup with league newcomer Sullivan South wasn’t only one challenge which faced Elizabethton. The Cyclones had to get over a bitterly disappointing 40-35 loss to Science Hill the previous week.
“Whenever you lose a tough ballgame, you just have to get back out on the field and get back to work,” Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten said. “The game against East, it was critical to go out there, execute and play with the fundamentals and techniques you focus on. We just wanted a good, solid performance. The worst thing you can do against an opponent like East is to get sloppy, have penalties and other mistakes. We went out there, did what we were supposed to do and did it really well.”
As usual, the Elizabethton offense started with running back Ethan Thomas. Although he carried the ball just seven times, Thomas had 90 yards including the game’s first two scores of four and 12 yards.
Christian Glover was equally productive with five rushes for 53 yards and also a pair of touchdowns.
Witten credited the play of the boys up front for those backs averaging over 10 yards per carry.
“The one consistent factor for us is our offensive line,” Witten said. “The first three games, they’ve really done a great job. We really like what Christian and Jeremiah (Turner) have given us the last couple of weeks, replacing Ethan. We also got our passing game going a little bit. Once we get that passing game helping us out, I think we will have a top offense.”
There was some balance against the Patriots.
Caleb Armstrong connected with Markus Olds for a 49-yard touchdown pass to complete a 35-0 first half for the Cyclones. As Witten pulled the reins in the second half, a big play came on the defensive side with Turner’s 65-yard interception return for a touchdown.
All total, four Cyclones — Austin Depew, Caleb Hancock, Olds and Turner — came up with interceptions.
“It was good to see guys in different places have interceptions,” Witten said. “We got our hands on the ball a couple of times on some tipped passes. We tried to get as many guys in the game as we possibly could. Our guys work hard and they deserve a chance to play. We pulled some guys and our backups were able to get some good work in.”
Elizabethton will face David Crockett in a non-conference game this Friday before getting to the meat of the conference schedule. There are still challenges before South. Among those are Sullivan North, a 44-22 winner over Unicoi County on Friday night, and Johnson County which features the combination of quarterback Warren Kerley and running back Patrick South.
“There are no easy games,” Witten said. “You have to take it game-by-game, week-by-week. You can’t focus on the big picture. You have to focus on what you have to do to get better. You have to stay focused on the task at hand. We wanted to improve on several different areas last night, and I think we did that. We just have to keep that going.”
It was easy for Hampton to stay focused on Unaka instead of looking down the road at Cloudland. The Bulldogs were off to their first 0-2 start since 2008, and only the program’s second 0-2 start in the last dozen years.
After being manhandled in a 34-6 loss to Onieda a week earlier, the Bulldogs shut out Unaka until the fourth quarter. It served notice to the rest of the Mountain East Conference that the eight-time defending conference champions are still a force to be reckoned with.
“I was very pleased how our kids showed up to work on Monday after a long, hard trip where we didn’t play well,” Hampton coach Mike Lunsford said. “Our coaches came in ready to work and we got a lot of the mistakes corrected. I was pleased with both the coaching staff and the players.”
Sophomore quarterback Coby Jones was one player whom Lunsford was pleased with. He completed 9-of-16 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns, and also rushed for 55 yards and two more touchdowns.
Dylan Ford was his favorite target with four catches for 140 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Ford also posted a 46-yard interception return.
“They’re playmakers,” Lunsford said. “They’re not very big, but they can make plays in the open field and we have to allow them to do those things. We were able to get them in space and a lot of that came from the offensive line. With the time to throw it and the holes they opened, the long touchdown, there wasn’t anybody within five yards of him from the time he caught the ball until he got to the end zone.”
Lunsford particularly liked how the Bulldogs controlled the line of scrimmage.
Jerry Lunsford had 14 carries for 84 yards, and led a rushing attack which produced 244 yards. On the other side of the ball, the Hampton defense held Unaka to minus-12 yards on 27 rushes. With 455 yards of total offense, the Bulldogs had 20 first downs to just four for the Rangers.
“For the first time, we played really good defense,” Coach Lunsford said. “That defense was tough. Boo Dugger is as good of a defensive lineman as there is. He’s solid. Last night, we had a sophomore John Cole play really well and our two defensive ends, Aaron Coleman and Tre Brown, played superb.
“Sometimes in the past, we were playing hard, but we were playing dumb, running all over the field doing crazy things. Our defensive coaches — Michael (Lunsford), coach (Dan) Winters and coach (Jake) Jenkins, did a spectacular job, getting some discipline in the defensive line and making them play their responsibilities.”
Cloudland isn’t the only tough league game awaiting Hampton. Much hyped newcomer South Greene and Cosby are both off to 0-3 starts, but are still looked at as dangerous opponents. The schedule is loaded towards the end of the season, but there is little chance the Bulldogs will be looking ahead this week. Next up is longtime rival Happy Valley, an opponent who has Lunsford’s full attention.
“We want to win that one and that’s the one we’re preparing for,” Lunsford said. “They’ve got a good football team, could have won their game against Cloudland. I know how good Cloudland is, so I know how good Happy Valley is.”