Sometimes you learn more about a football team in a loss than you do in a win. 

Following a 33-14 win at Gatlinburg-Pittman in the second week of the season, Oneida has looked more like a team searching for an identity than a team prepared to make a playoff run in November. Even though they had won two of three games after that win over the Highlanders, the Indians hadn’t looked like the same team doing it, needing second half surges to put away region foes Wartburg and Cumberland Gap, while Harriman used a second half surge of its own to hand Oneida its first loss of the season.

Oneida coach Tony Lambert certainly didn’t feel his team had played its best football in those three games. After the Indians’26-7 win over Cumberland Gap, Lambert said he was still looking for the energy and effort his team left on the field in Gatlinburg.

Lambert, though, had no criticisms after Friday’s 21-10 loss to York Institute. It was a game that saw the Indians, ranked No. 7 in the state in Class 2A heading into the game, lead York, the state’s No. 9 team in Class 3A, at the half before being unable to match a pair of second half touchdowns by the Dragons.

“We challenged our kids about having courage this week,” Lambert said. “I thought our kids came out and showed courage from the get-go. I thought our kids fought hard in that first half.”

The final chapter of York’s season is a long ways away from being written, but the Dragons feel they’re poised to be a contender in November.

“That’s a good football team,” Lambert said. “They’re state-ranked in 3A. A lot of people think they’re one on this side of the state that can compete with Alcoa.”

Even though his team came up short, the effort was satisfying to Lambert, though he said his team was hungry for more.

“There are a lot of hurt feelings down there,” he said. “The kids are exhausted. They laid it out on the field tonight.”

There isn’t much time for wound-licking, however. The Indians were to have begun preparations for Rockwood on Monday, as back-to-back road games loom in region play. Friday’s game in Roane County will determine whether the Indians can secure a home playoff game. Then they’ll compete for the Region 2-2A championship against the state’s top-ranked team in Class 2A.

“We know we can play physical football,” Lambert said. “I think anybody that was here tonight can see this team is capable of playing with the big boys. This game is so mental, it’s so emotional. You have to play with great energy every snap. We tried to challenge them to compete every snap tonight. I think they did, but here’s a great York team that did the same thing. But I think the biggest thing to take away from tonight is we can play football with anybody. If we come out and play good football, we can be right there with anybody at the end.”

Execution will be key at Rockwood, Lambert said.

“When we don’t execute, it’s ugly,” he said. “But when we execute, it’s a pretty good-looking thing. If you could bottle it up, the energy and the competitiveness we played with in that first half, and keep that all the time, obviously that would be a great thing.”

Still in control

Scott enters the final four games of the season with a record of 1-5, but the Highlanders are still firmly in control of their own playoff destination.

“Our goals are in place,” head coach Josh Terry said after Friday’s loss to Karns. “They’re still before us. We took steps tonight in the right direction towards getting a lot of things corrected from a schematic standpoint, from an approach standpoint overall.”

All four remaining games are region games, and the Highlanders will likely need to win three of them to make the playoffs.

The first one, a visit to Knoxville this week to face Austin-East, is likely the most difficult of the bunch. The Roadrunners are 3-2 on the season, but dominated Gibbs, 30-12, which would go on to defeat Campbell County, and they’re coming off a three-touchdown win over Knox Halls, which put up 54 points on Karns in a win earlier this season.

While the Highlanders will approach this week’s game looking for an opportunity to spring an upset at Austin-East, a loss will not ruin Scott’s playoff chances. 

While a loss to the Roadrunners would leave the Highlanders’ margin for error at zero, the remaining three games are certainly winnable by any standard, as Scott will return home to face Kingston in an October 5 homecoming game before a trip to Northview Academy on October 12 and a visit from pigeon Forge on October 26.

“There’s a lot of time left. It’s there,” Terry said. “We just have to rally around our seniors. As far as our behavior and our play going forward, everything else will fall in place.”

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett.