Scott High will load the buses tomorrow (Friday) afternoon for the 90-minute drive to Alcoa to face the perennial Class 3A state bully with an 0-2 record.
Given the challenge of finding a way to knock off the defending state champs on their turf, most will expect the Highlanders to walk away from Friday’s game with an 0-3 record, ready to regroup before Grainger travels to Huntsville for a non-region game on September 7.
But how different would the perception be if just a couple of things had happened during the first two weeks of the season? Consider: Scott High had the ball on the one-yard-line in the waning seconds of the season-opener against Clinton. Some thought senior playmaker Grainger Smith had actually broken the plane of the goal line before the ball was knocked loose by Dragon defenders, but there is no instant replay in high school football. Irregardless, Scott also had the ball inside the 20 on a separate occasion earlier in the fourth quarter, which resulted in a missed field goal. And what if, during last week’s game at Stone Memorial, Scott had found a way to punch the ball in late in the first quarter when it had the ball around the Panthers’ 20-yard-line? What if two penalties hadn’t occurred that helped stall the drive? The Highlanders would have gone up 13-0 on Stone, and the rest of the game could have been much different.
We all know what they say about ifs and buts, candy and nuts and merry Christmases, but the point is that records can be deceiving. Instead of 0-2, the Highlanders could just as easily be 2-0 heading into this week’s game at Alcoa.
They’re not, of course, and close games don’t much matter when playoff standings are calculated. But since neither of the first two games of the season will count towards playoff standings, that’s okay. The point is: the Highlanders are probably much closer to their goal of being a playoff team than the 0-2 start would indicate on paper.
Scott’s coaches know it. And while head coach Josh Terry credited Stone Memorial with being the better team in last week’s game, he also took away several positives: “We kinda got the passing game executing a little bit,” he said afterwards. “There were some times Alex (Rector) stood in the pocket and took some shots and delivered the ball. He’s certainly maturing as a quarterback.
“Defensively, Grainger Smith was all over the place,” Terry added. “He had a really, really good night. Andrew Hembree was all over the place, as well. Our interior defensive line a couple of times got a decent little push. Dawson Branstetter played tough on the interior when they tried to pound it between the tackles. There were some things to build on going forward.”
Terry knows that the improvements have to start in practice.
“We have to start winning on Mondays and Tuesdays a little more, and get it right,” he said. “Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug, and you’re certainly going to be the bug more often than not when you’re not taking care of things that you have to do as an 11-man unit. But we’ll get it. We’ll get better.”
Still a running team: If there was any doubt that Oneida would still be a running football team with its switch to a spread wing-T offense, let the first two games of the season lay that to rest.
In wins over Claiborne and Gatlinburg, the Indians had 628 rushing yards and 18 passing yards.
And why not? Oneida has a stable of running backs that have shown themselves capable of running the ball, with an offensive line that can push people around. Junior Bryson Buttram was the start of Friday’s game at Gatlinburg, with 215 rushing yards in the second half alone, but he is just one of nearly a half-dozen backs with explosive potential.
And while Buttram was running wild against the Highlanders, his offensive line was the night’s unsung heroes. Despite playing a bigger school — Gatlinburg is a Class 3A football team — the Indians’ veteran offensive line dominated, opening gaping holes for Buttram and his fellow backs. Gatlinburg’s defense was exhausted by the third quarter, and that showed, with the Highlander defense primarily seeing the back of Buttram’s jersey over and over as the game progressed.
The real test for Oneida will come in the second half of the season, against teams like Rockwood and Meigs County inside the region, and teams like York Institute and Coalfield outside it. But, early on, the Indians’ rushing attack looks like their best in perhaps 10 years.
A reversal of fortunes: Back in the 1980s, Gatlinburg-Pittman vexed Oneida football. Between 1979 and 1988, the Highlanders beat the Indians 10 times. It was a successful time for Oneida, but Oneida couldn’t beat G-P.
During that stretch, the Highlanders beat the Indians once each season, then bounced them from the playoffs in the 1983 postseason, just for good measure.
Throw in a couple of wins in 2009 and 2010, when the rivalry was renewed, and G-P had a series record of 13-0 against the Indians.
That has changed in a big way. This year’s Oneida seniors will exit with a 4-0 record against Gatlinburg. And Indians head coach Tony Lambert has never lost to the Highlanders. His philosophy on why is simple:
“I ain’t lost to them ‘cause the kids ain’t lost,” Lambert said after Oneida’s 33-14 win at Gatlinburg on Friday.
Lambert has long been critical of fair day, it’s tradition for schools to close on Friday while the fair is in town, saying that it serves as a distraction from football and leads to poor play on Friday night.
After Friday’s game, which saw the Indians execute well in every phase, Oneida broadcaster Tim Smith jokingly asked Lambert if he was going to lay off fair day for a while.
“We got ‘em in there today,” Lambert said. “We didn’t let them lay in the bed. We made sure everybody got up and ate breakfast and got in there by 1 o’clock, then we had a team meal at 2 o’clock. Our guys knew what was coming.”
From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column of the Independent Herald.