Oneida’s game at Cumberland Gap ended a bit early, but no one was going anywhere.
In the press box at Speedwell, several people wearing the Oneida orange huddled around a radio, listening to the voice of Scott High football, call the final two minutes of the Highlanders’ thrilling win at Gatlinburg-Pittman.
If it seemed like everyone was rooting for Scott to get its first win of the season, they were. Oneida and Scott High may be the closest thing to rivals that you’ll ever find for two programs that do not play each other, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t well-wishes from either side when the stakes are high on the opposite side.
The stakes were high on Friday. With Gatlinburg appearing to settle in under new head coach Derek Rang — who won a state championship at Dresden before moving back east to replace Benny Hammonds, who stepped down after more than 40 years at the helm — not many folks outside Scott County gave the Highlanders much of a chance to go on the road and win.
But Scott did just that, exorcising a few demons that had been gathering during the season’s first four weeks by jumping to a 21-0 lead to stun GP, then regrouping for a pair of timely second half touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Grainger Smith looked a lot like a guy who is now playing on Saturdays down in Georgia, as he directed the Highlander offense to a season-high 387 yards. Meanwhile, the Scott defense, much maligned by Grainger’s running game in a loss a week earlier, rebounded to limit Gatlinburg to 105 rushing yards.
It was quite a change for the Highlanders, as the frustrations of the previous week’s loss in Rutledge melted into the jubilation of a last-minute win in Gatlinburg.
In some ways, perhaps, that reversal of trends and results reflected the approach of Scott’s ever-calm, ever-cool and ever-collected head coach, Keith Shannon, who praised his players for “staying true to the process” despite an 0-4 start to the season.
Shannon said the Highlanders “got whipped” by Grainger in a way that his team hadn’t endured since a loss to Seymour two years earlier. But, he added, the players resolved to not let it happen again.
“We came out on Monday and there wasn’t a whole lot of yelling going on,” Shannon said. “But there was a whole lot of hitting. We made a commitment to the process of getting tougher.”
Toughness, Shannon said, is all about taking hits and keeping on.
“Sometimes it’s a fist-fight,” he said. “Everybody likes the idea of fist-fighting until somebody gets punched in the mouth. (But) the man that can take getting punched in the mouth and keep going forward and not quit, that’s one you can win with.”
The result was Scott High making the long bus trip to the tourism mecca of Tennessee and taking the fight to Gatlinburg-Pittman, a program the Highlanders had not beaten in 18 years.
In doing so, the Highlanders thrust themselves into the thick of the Region 2-3A playoff conversation.
There are a lot of plausible scenarios for the Class 3A postseason, but the closest thing to a certainty at the midway point of the season is that Alcoa is probably going to be Region 2’s top seed in the playoffs. After that, everything is still wide open. Some people would project Austin-East as the No. 2 team in the region, but the Roadrunners have only played one region game, defeating Kingston. And after that? No one appears unbeatable in this conference. And as the result of Friday’s game showed, the road to the postseason just might go through Huntsville.
Indian defense will look to regroup
If you were to have made a list of the most dangerous offenses Oneida would face this season, Cumberland Gap would not have been anywhere near the top.
Coalfield would have ranked up there, certainly, as would have Meigs County. York Institute, Rockwood and Gatlinburg-Pittman would have all been somewhere just behind. Behind them? Maybe Bledsoe County? Claiborne?
Chances are, Cumberland Gap would have been towards the bottom.
Yet the Panthers managed to shift the narrative of Oneida’s season a bit on Friday. Through the first half of the schedule, one constant for the Indians had been their defense. Entering Friday’s game, Oneida had not given up a second-half touchdown all season. The Indians had given up just one rushing touchdown.
Yet Cumberland Gap managed to move the football efficiently on the ground and through the air, scoring two second half touchdowns, both of them on the ground. In the process, the Panthers turned a 27-7 yawner into a 27-20 nail-biter that required a late touchdown drive before the Indians could feel comfortable.
If Tony Lambert, who was concerned about his team’s defense before the start of the season, seemed upset about that effort, it’s probably because Lambert knows this: Most of those teams listed at above are still ahead for his Indians. The second half of the season will be decidedly more difficult than the first. Oneida may have already secured a playoff berth, but the last five games of the season will do more than determine where the Indians are playing in Week 11; they will set the narrative as the postseason begins. And that five-game slate begins with a trip to Jamestown to face a good York team this week.
“If we don’t get better in a hurry, it’ll get rocky for us,” Lambert said. “Now, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can be competitive.”
Lambert said the onus is on his team to prove they are hungry enough to win games against tough opponents.
“I’m putting it on them,” he said. “This is one of the few times I’ve ever done that. They’re going to have to decide whether they want to get it or not.”
But, in the next breath, Lambert said the coaches will shoulder some of the burden as well.
“It starts with me,” Lambert said. “I’m going to have to do some soul-searching to figure out which direction we’re going to go with this team. All I know to do is roll up our sleeves and go to work.”