ELIZABETHTON — In a Three Rivers Conference Jamboree full of surprises, nothing was more surprising than Unicoi County’s performance Friday night at Brown-Childress Stadium.
Behind the arm of Austin Hensley, the Blue Devils pulled off an 8-6 victory over Sullivan North in the second of three one-quarter contests.
In other games, Happy Valley and Johnson County battled to a scoreless tie, while homestanding Elizabethton and Sullivan East tied 7-7.
Hensley went 6-for-6 on the Blue Devils’ winning drive and completed 7 of 8 passes overall for 85 yards. His favorite target was Hunter Goodard, who hauled in three passes for 54 yards.
“We’ve been working out a lot together,” Hensley said. “We’ve been working on his routes and my throwing. It just kind of clicked tonight. We decided to throw some play-action fakes in there and it seemed to work in the passing game.”
Hunter Abbott rumbled in the end zone four yards to pull Unicoi County to a 6-6 tie, and the next play, Hensley found Phillip Franklin in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead, two-point conversion.
While not an official win, head coach Jerad Huskins called an important step for the Unicoi County program, coming off a 1-9 season and picked just fifth out of the six teams in the coaches’ preseason poll.
“We played hard and wanted to play with intensity. We did that,” Huskins said. “We played fast, but we did have a couple of stupid penalties where we have to take care of. But execution-wise, we looked all right.
Sullivan North scored the first points of the night, taking a seven-play, 65-yard drive, capped off by a one-yard run by Kiree Thompson.
Unicoi County, which was outgained by North 91 yards to negative one on the ground, adjusted by going to the air. It obviously paid off as Abbott reached the end zone with just 24 seconds left on the clock.
“We’ll do that in a heartbeat this year,” Huskins said. “If we have to set up and throw it 30 times, we will. If we’ve got to run it 30 times and grind it, we’ll do that too. We’ll do whatever we have to, to score.”
Happy Valley and defending league champion Elizabethton didn’t show their hands in the exhibition.
The Warriors, coming off a scrimmage involving a trio of North Carolina schools one night earlier, didn’t play their top guys against the Longhorns, while the Cyclones tried to get everyone in the contest against the Patriots.
“We brought in a lot of sophomores and freshmen, people who hadn’t played before,” Happy Valley head coach Larry Shively said. “I know what those other kids can do and they’ve seen a lot of live bullets.
“The jamboree, it is what it is. I don’t know if we gave everyone five dollars worth of entertainment, but nobody got hurt, so we’re happy.”
There were some positives for Johnson County, which had 17 of its 22 starters taking their first varsity snap. The Longhorns controlled the clock for most of the 12-minute quarter with sophomore fullback Luke Poteet gaining 30 yards behind a Longhorn line content to pound the ball.
“Basically what you saw is what we’re going to try to do this year,” Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood said. “It’s going to be boring, but we feel if people don’t have the ball they can’t score. If we can cut down on our mistakes, especially near the goal line, we will get a lot better.”
Sullivan East struck first against Elizabethton with 6-4 receiver Chance Davis making an acrobatic catch of Daniel Truett’s pass in the left corner of the end zone. The Patriots showed patience in the drive which took the clock down to the 4:37 mark.
“As long as the kids trust and believe each other, we have a chance,” first-year Patriots head coach Mike Locke said. “We’re coming together as a team and that’s what we aspire to.”
Elizabethton, again the league favorite, responded by scoring on a six-play, 70-yard drive which took just 2:26. The biggest play came on a 38-yard burst by Zach Moore. On a first-and-goal from the five-yard line, Clayton Smith went over right tackle for the tying touchdown.
“We know we can score. The key for us will be stopping people,” Cyclones head coach Shawn Witten said. “We faced some adversity, and then we got the ball back and went back down the field and scored. It was good to see.”
Overall, the jamboree served as a way for the coaches to see how different players would react to certain situations.
“I saw some things we hadn’t seen in our preseason scrimmages,” Witten said. “Even though they scored, they had to march it down the field. There were no big plays, so it was kind of a bend and don’t break. But, it was a good learning experience for us. We have a lot of work to do because we have a heck of a football game (Daniel Boone) coming in here next Friday.”