Tanner VanHoy carries the ball for the Blue Devils at Johnson County on Friday, Nov. 1. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

A home playoff game and a winning season were on the line for the Unicoi County High School football team when they faced the Johnson County Longhorns (4-6, 3-2) in Mountain City on Friday, Nov. 1. And although they played a sloppy first half, the Blue Devils (6-4, 4-1) rose to the challenge.

“I was very proud of how our guys played,” UCHS head coach Drew Rice told The Erwin Record. “These seniors did not want the Volunteer game to be their last one at Gentry Stadium, so they made sure we got at least one more at home. That says a lot about them.”

The Blue Devils took a 6-0 lead on their first possession of the game thanks to a six-play, 63-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown run by Kody Lewis.

“It’s always good to strike first. I do think when we scored so easily on that first drive that we relaxed a little bit, and led to a couple sloppy drives that followed,” Rice said.

Neither team would score in the remainder of the first half. Penalties were a major factor in keeping the Blue Devils out of the end zone before halftime. At the same time, the UCHS defense did its job, according to the head coach.

“I think we let our guard down a little bit when it only took us four plays to go down and score on the opening drive,” Rice said. “Our defense did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone. Almost all of our penalties came in those two drives which caused the drives to stall. It’s definitely not how we wanted to play in the second quarter.”

Halftime allowed Rice and the UCHS coaching staff to refocus the team.

“We challenged our guys to clean up some of the sloppiness and execute better. To their credit, they did exactly that in the second half,” Rice said. “We executed much better in the second half. We were able to turn them over and capitalize on their mistakes.”

The improvement in the Blue Devils’ play was evident from the first drive of the third quarter. After a kickoff return by Tanner VanHoy, the UCHS offense began the drive on their own 40- yard line and began to establish its running game. After short carries by Lewis, Diego Diaz had a 14-yard gain. Lewis then broke several tackles on his way to the end zone from 37 yards out. Miguel Vasquez then converted the extra point and UCHS led 13-0 with 10 minutes to play in the third quarter.

The Blue Devil defense then forced a fumble, recovered by Michael Harrington, which gave UCHS possession on Johnson County’s 24-yard line. Three plays later, Lewis scored again. Vasquez hit another extra point and the Blue Devils held a commanding 20-0 lead with around six minutes to play in the third quarter.

“The success we had running the ball, really opened up our passing game,” Rice said of the second half. “We were able to hit some big plays off of play-action in the second half. (Quarterback) Brock (Thompson) did a great job of running the offense all night.”

The Blue Devils scored two more touchdowns in the game – one by Evan Huff in the third and one by Diaz in the fourth – as their defense completed the shutout. UCHS won the game 34-0.

“It’s a testament to their commitment to each other and this program,” Rice said of the win in Mountain City. “These guys have been very resilient all year long. I commend them for that.”

Lewis had another big night for UCHS. The senior had 24 carries for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also had 2 catches for 43 yards. 

“Kody was really stout running the ball,” Rice said. “He passed 4,000 yards rushing for his career, which is a tremendous accomplishment. He is closing in on 5,000 total yards for his career as well. He broke his own record of rushing touchdowns that he set last year. He is now at 26 touchdowns on the season. Those numbers are really staggering to think about.”

Thompson was also solid against the Longhorns, according to the head coach. The junior quarterback was 5-9 with 109 yards and 1 touchdown.

“I thought Brock did a great job on both sides of the ball,” Rice said. “Our offensive and defensive lines really controlled the line of scrimmage. Rodrigo Castellon really played well for us there. Diego Diaz gave us a tremendous effort as well at running back.”

Diaz had 9 carries for 73 yards and touchdown. Huff had 1 catch for 10 yards and a touchdown. Tracy Vanover had 1 catch for 44 yards. Peyton Whitson had 1 catch for 10 yards.

Lane Garland had 6 tackles. L.J. Mitchell had 5 tackles and 2 sacks. Roby Lemmon had 5 tackles. Harrington had 2 tackles, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Gabe Tipton had 3 tackles and a sack.

UCHS had 379 yards of offense in the win. Johnson County had 155.

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With their victory, the Blue Devils claimed second place in Region 1-AAA, earned themselves a home playoff game and guaranteed the program’s second consecutive winning season since the 1988 and 1989 campaigns.

“Hopefully, it’s a trend that will become the norm for our program,” Rice said of the back-to-back winning seasons. “There was a time when just getting in the playoffs was a huge deal, and now we have hosted the first round two years in a row here and even advancing in the playoffs last year. Our next step needs to be solidifying a region championship. We were a tipped ball away from that being a reality this year. Hopefully, that is something that will motivate our returning guys even more over this offseason. Our JV had the first winning season since I have been coaching here, and our middle school just put together the two winningest seasons in school history. All of that would point to, hopefully, a very bright future in the coming years.”

The Blue Devils earned second place in Region 1-AAA, which gives them a home playoff game on Friday, Nov. 8, at Gentry Stadium.

“It’s huge and very exciting for these guys,” Rice said of the home playoff game. “For these seniors to get to host the first round their last two years of high school is an awesome achievement. I think we learned last year that hosting provides a much more promising shot to win and advance. I am just glad these guys get to play at least one more time at Gentry Stadium.”

The Blue Devils’ opponent will be Gatlingburg-Pittman (8-2, 4-2), the third place team from Region 2-AAA.

“They are a great football team,” Rice said. “They are 8-2 and their only two losses have been to Alcoa and Austin East. They are the best team we will have seen all season. With that being said, I think we match up well with them. We know we are going to have to put together our most complete effort of the season to get this one. But the awesome thing about the playoffs is, everyone’s record is 0-0 and anything can happen.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Nov. 8. UCHS officials also wish to remind those who plan to attend the game that the only passes that will be accepted are TACA cards and TSSAA Championship cards. UCHS season passes will not be accepted. Parking passes will be honored, but not for admission. Tickets are $8. Gates will open at 4:30 p.m.

Other local playoff games on Friday will be: Kingston (6-4) at Chuckey-Doak (6-4); Johnson County (4-6) at Austin East (7-3); and West Greene (5-5) at Alcoa (9-1).