Hampton has been the dominant team in the Mountain East Conference over the past eight years. Cloudland has been the dominant team this season.
The longtime rivals will square off this Friday night at Orr Field in Roan Mountain with the conference championship on the line.
The Highlanders are 5-0 in the league and 9-0 overall, while Hampton is 5-0 in conference play and 6-3 overall.
“It’s a huge game for everybody involved,” Cloudland head coach Brock Pittman said. “To play in a conference championship, we had the same opportunity last year. Our guys have experience in a game like this, so that’s a good thing. We’re going to go out, do our best and see what happens.”
The Bulldogs come into the contest as the winner of eight straight Mountain East titles. Still, there were a lot of questions this season after the Bulldogs lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver from a year ago.
“It’s pretty exciting because we didn’t know how good we would be this year,” Hampton head coach Mike Lunsford said. “We were starting a bunch of young kids, but we’ve come a long ways from the start of the season. It’s great to have an opportunity to play for a championship.”
One of those young kids is sophomore quarterback Coby Jones. He had a breakout game in a 33-21 win against Happy Valley, hitting 5-of-9 passes for 75 yards and running for another 71 yards. He also had 211 passing yards and 55 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 48-6 league win over Unaka.
“He’s become a real good leader, a smart kid and a great athlete,” Lunsford said. “He’s thrown for a lot of yards and run for a lot of yards. He’s put us on his back at times to win some games for us. He’s a different kid than he was at the start of the season.”
The biggest surprise for Hampton has been freshman running back Adam McClain. He scored three touchdowns in that win against the Warriors. This past Friday night, he was the Bulldogs’ workhorse, running 34 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns in a hard-earned 48-41 win over South Greene.
“You don’t expect a freshman to do the stuff he’s done,” Lunsford said. “He’s had some real good games. We’ve been blessed to have kids like him come in because we’ve had some injuries and other things. We had a kid move away in the middle of the season and we’ve never had that before.”
The Highlanders have their own pair of young stars.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Whitehead had incredible back-to-back weeks earlier in the season. He had 261 yards of total offense and five touchdowns against Johnson County. He followed up that performance by running for 319 yards and ending with 427 all-purpose yards against Unaka.
“He’s done a great job,” Pittman said. “He’s a heady guy, a heady player. He can make good decisions on the move. That’s a blessing to have in a young player.”
Tailback Colby Birchfield, also a sophomore, led the ‘Landers with 201 rushing yards this past Friday night in a 52-12 thumping of Hancock County. He has made a habit of coming up big in league games, running for 162 yards on 19 carries in a 27-10 win over Cosby back in September.
“He can be really explosive, another sophomore who has come a long way since his freshman year,” Pittman said. “He played for us last year and started on one side of the ball, so he has experience playing in this game from last year.”
Despite his team’s undefeated record and a No. 2 Class A state ranking, Pittman refused to call his team the favorite. In fact, he points to the Bulldogs’ eight consecutive titles and nine straight wins over the Highlanders, including last year’s 26-12 decision, as reasons Hampton should be favored.
“We’re the underdog like we’ve been all season,” he said. “Hampton is the best team in our league until somebody beats them and nobody has beaten them in a long time. So we consider ourselves to be the underdog.
“We’ve been the underdog all year because it seems like people are just waiting for us to lose. When you look statewide and these other teams, to be ranked second, it’s an honor. But, we go out every week trying to prove that’s where we belong.”
Lunsford has been on both sides of the rivalry, including time as head coach at Cloudland from 1989-2003, and as head coach of the Bulldogs since 2009.
While series against Happy Valley and Johnson County have been more even-handed, there’s no doubt this is the game Hampton has circled on the calendar.
Still, Lunsford said the preparation this week has been like any other.
“You don’t prepare any different for Cloudland than you do South Greene,” Lunsford said. “Honestly, you just try to get ready for what they do. It’s nothing more than trying to figure out what they do and what you can do against them. They’ve got a super defense, a great run defense. Their kids are so tough and they love hitting and making tackles. They’re tough, hard-nosed kids.”