This week has meant the start of high school football media days.
For me, it’s a time to look back at the most memorable games I’ve covered over the past 13 years with the Johnson City Press and prior to that with the Elizabethton Star. I enjoy all the prep sports, but there is something great about high school football being that one big event per week.
The players, the coaching staffs, the marching bands, the schools and even the stadiums have their own personalities.
Whether it’s been a hot, steamy night in August or in the shivering cold of November, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed every night on the prep football beat.
Let us start this countdown of memorable games with:
10 The rivalry games
It’s always fun to cover a rivalry game and I’ve been fortunate to see the biggest rivalries in the area.
Talking to my fellow sports writers, you get a little more excited when the assignment reads Dobyns-Bennett vs. Science Hill, Daniel Boone vs. David Crockett, Hampton vs. Cloudland or some other great rivalry.
Of these games I’ve covered, the most memorable was Happy Valley at Elizabethton in 2003.
The Warriors pulled off a 7-6 victory, their second win over the Cyclones in four years.
An early interception by Tim Whaley set up three-yard touchdown run by Todd Caldwell to put Happy Valley ahead 7-0.
Elizabethton came back with a touchdown in the third quarter, but the extra point went wide right as the Warriors clung to the lead.
Although Happy Valley dominated much of the game, outgaining Elizabethton 232-143 on the ground, it took a terrific open-field tackle by by the Warriors’ Michael Everhardt on the Cyclones’ Lester Bailey to save the day.
It ended up a banner year for the Warriors, who also defeated Unicoi County and Hampton for wins over all three of the school’s biggest rivals.
9 Cloudland 24, Appalachia, Va. 12 (2004)
Tradtional powers were pitted against each other in Roan Mountain with the Highlanders getting the best of the five-time Virginia state champion Bulldogs.
Cody Jones led the way for Cloudland, carrying the ball 27 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns.
The game was 12-12 at the break, but it was all Cloudland in the second half. Jones gave the ‘Landers the lead in the third quarter and senior lineman Jimmy Johnson had a sack on a big defensive stand to turn the game clearly in Cloudland’s favor.
Interceptions by Toby King and Jordan Buck crushed any of an Appalachia comeback, and helped the Highlanders reach their seventh straight winning season.
8 Unaka 21, West Greene 14 (1998)
It was the first football game I ever covered and a thrilling one to boot.
In the Rangers’ 1998 season finale, Jason Rasnick racked up 130 yards on just eight carries to lead the Rangers to a 21-14 win over the Buffaloes in a game which wasn’t decided until the final minute.
Down 14-7, Ben Ensor completed a 14-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and Rasnick gave Unaka the go-ahead score with a 55-yard rumble later in the final quarter.
Despite a valiant effort that night on Stoney Creek, West Greene ended the year 0-10.
It was my first introduction to Unaka’s Doug Buckles, one of the area’s best public address announcers, and his call of “going up the creek” or “down the creek” instead of marching towards the north or south end zones.
7. Johnson County 6, Sullivan East 0 (2000)
The Longhorns’ 2000 season opener at Sullivan East was the perfect example of the hard-nosed style they were known for.
Lining up in the I-formation and running straight at the Patriots, Chris Dunn, Johnson County’s powerful 6-3, 240-pound tailback, carried the ball 22 times for 139 yards.
However, it was a fumble recovery by Longhorn defensive end Jesse Cranford with 45 seconds to go which set up the winning score.
Following offensive tackle Johnny Miller and fullback Michael Phillips, quarterback Chris Gambill scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak with 14 seconds left.
Gambill explained that Miller told him in the huddle, “Don’t listen to coach, run that thing behind me.”
Head coach Mike Atwood called the win a gutsy effort for his team which went on to finish 8-3 including a hard-fought loss at Austin-East in the first round of the playoffs.
6. David Crockett 28, Sullivan North 6 (2007)
This summer’s hot weather brings back memories of a blistering Thursday night in Kingsport when David Crockett and Sullivan North opened the 2007 football season.
Although the Pioneers had statistically dominated the first half with 99 rushing yards to (-5) for the Golden Raiders, the game was scoreless at the intermission.
Jamie Copas ended the scoring drought on the first play of the second half with a 78-yard sprint to the end zone. Barry Vandelinder added a touchdown catch and a pair of interceptions as Crockett rolled to a 28-0 lead.
It was a rousing start to the 2007 season for the Pioneers and a personal victory for head coach Kent Green, a former Sullivan North assistant.
5. Elizabethton 35, Sullivan Central 20 (2000)
With the Big Six Conference title on the line, the home-standing Cyclones lived up to their nickname with a whirlwind of 22 points in just two minutes and 15 seconds.
It had been a tough start to the 2000 season with back-to-back losses to rivals Science Hill and Happy Valley, but coming back to win the school’s seventh straight league championship showed the character of the team and head coach Tommy Jenkins, one of the nicest guys ever to grace the sidelines.
The game featured one of the prettiest pass plays I’d ever seen in a high school game as Elizabethton quarterback Andy Curtis hit Neal Wandell in stride for a 63-yard touchdown. It was part of the outburst which turned a 13-6 nailbiter into a 35-6 rout.
Led by Jon Mills’ 123 rushing yards, the Cyclones showed great balance with 197 yards on the ground and 181 yards through the air.
4. Hampton 28, Unicoi County 27 (2008)
Easily the most entertaining game on this list, the teams combined for 55 points and over 800 yards of total offense.
While the Bulldogs scored the victory, the Blue Devils’ Corey Headley made one of the most spectacular plays I can remember.
Late in the game, Hampton quarterback Brett Price busted up the middle 52 yards on a keeper, but the speedy Headley chased him down from behind and stripped him of the ball at the 1-yard line. Unicoi’s Isaac Absalom recovered the ball in the end zone, giving the Devils a chance for a go-ahead score.
However, the Blue Devils fumbled on their next possession and Hampton held on for the win.
It was a big night for the Bulldogs’ running back tandem of Luke Blackmon and Dustin Roberson, who totaled 125 and 110 rushing yards, respectively.
Blackmon also took a screen pass from Price 52 yards, and Price added a two-point conversion run for the winning score.
3. Daniel Boone 23, Tennessee High 14 (2009)
This is arguably the biggest win in Daniel Boone history.
Combined with wins over Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill, this gave Trailblazers the season sweep over the area’s big three city schools and their first ever 10-win season.
It was a daunting task for the Trailblazers to go to the Stone Castle and face a Vikings squad ranked No. 1 in the state. The teams played each other three weeks before with Taylor Harmon slicing up the Boone defense for 339 passing yards in a 51-26 Tennessee High victory.
The late radio announcer Dave Church asked my prediction before this second-round playoff game which I replied Boone, 24-21 to his astonishment. My reason was the first game resembled a basketball game which Tennessee High took a big lead early, and the ‘Blazers were spent after making a rally in the middle of the game.
With Boone getting off to the fast start this time, including a 59-yard strike from Austin Reppart to Jesse Collins to set up a Brandon Burkey field goal on the first possession, there was no stopping the ‘Blazers.
Holding a two-score lead after Blake Shropshire’s one-yard touchdown run, the ‘Blazers ran straight at the Vikings and basically ran out the clock in the fourth quarter.
2. Science Hill 49, Volunteer 13 (2010)
There was an electric atmosphere with the opening of Kermit Tipton Stadium and the Hilltoppers didn’t disappoint the home crowd.
An early fumble recovery by Alex Payne led to a 39-yard touchdown pass from Daniel Snyder to Ryan Mitchell on the next play for the first points ever scored at the Hilltoppers’ new home.
Volunteer marched back down the field to tie the game, but Science Hill would not be denied.
The ‘Toppers scored on their first six possessions to easily put the game out of reach. Snyder had a monster game for Science Hill with 154 rushing yards and 107 passing yards.
Performing in front of an overflowing home crowd, Science Hill coach Stacy Carter described it best after the game.
“It’s exciting, the whole thing,” he said. “The Good Lord has definitely blessed me to be in this place right now. We feel very lucky to be a part of this.”
1. Happy Valley 30, West Greene 7 (2001)
Every major sports league in America and NCAA college football decided to postpone or cancel games following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association made the decision to go ahead and play its high school football games. While most schools stayed with the traditional Friday night schedule, Happy Valley and West Greene opted for Saturday night.
For me, being at a high school football game was the first sign of things getting back to normal after a week of chaos. People had rushed to the gas pumps in a panic, while everyone was uncertain about their jobs and their overall safety.
There was a smaller than normal crowd that night on Warrior Hill, but everyone there stood a little taller when the national anthem was played.
Looking back at the actual game, the Buffaloes struck first to go up 7-0, but the Warriors’ ground attack soon won out. Happy Valley racked up 212 rushing yards on 42 carries, while the Buffaloes were held to (-7) yards on 26 carries. After the game, head coach Stan Ogg was pleased with the performance, but visibly subdued.
While it wasn’t much of a contest from a competitive standpoint, I’ve never enjoyed being at a football game more.
That September night was about much more than a sporting event. It was a celebration of something truly American.
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.