The success of Johnson County Middle Schools Football program has been building over the past few years, but with an extremely talented and versatile group of returning eighth graders this season, the Longhorns have been able to pull off a record that hasnt been matched in more than a decade.
This team is the first team my coaching staff and I have had go undefeated in the regular season, said Head Coach Matthew Bray. In the past three years we have won the championship twice and it was an uphill battle both times, but now we are coming into it on top. Its also the first time that has happened since 2004.
Although Johnson County pulled through to win the championship against Happy Valley last year, a string of injuries throughout the season proved critical in several key matchups. If there was one bright side to having to fill in for several tough positions it was that many of the younger players got a chance to gain some valuable time on the field. Coming back as eighth graders in the starting line up, Coach Bray explained that even though many of the wins have been a true team effort, much of the success has been due to a core of veteran players.
While Johnson County has been somewhat fortunate this year concerning injuries, they havent been exempt from the occasional mishap. Even Coach Bray admitted that in a season full of victories there were a few familiar faces missing on the field that could have made some of the wins a little easier. Our greatest challenge so far has been keeping the players healthy, Bray said. Not to mention the usual football related injuries, which are always a challenge. Weve had cases of every type of illness that plagues kids. The hardest hit to our team was losing Bud Icenhour to a knee injury in the second game as he is a big threat on both sides of the ball.
Those early problems aside, the Longhorns got off to a good start and never let up. The season opened with a home scrimmage win over T.A. Dugger, followed swiftly with a strong showing at the Jamboree and a huge win over Unaka. Yet Johnson Countys first real challenge wasnt until August 17 when the Longhorns traveled to Bristol to take on Tennessee High feeder school, Vance Middle.
As one of the toughest games of the season, fans were pleasantly shocked when the Longhorn offense drove in more than 300 yards to claim a confidence boosting victory against the Vikings. According to Coach Bray, The win over Vance (TN High) was significant as they were bigger, faster, and stronger than us. When we defeated them 36-12 we were as shocked as they were. Thats when we started to believe we were onto something.
As with many of the big battles this season, the win was attributed to a strong showing from a group second year players including quarterback Nathan Arnold. Nathan Arnold is the backbone of our offense, Bray said. He leads the team in overall yards. Our tailback Gage Hampton comes in a close second with Will Kerley in third, and Shane Greer leading in receiving yards. Our defense is led by our 117 pound defensive tackle Hayden Osborne and is backed up by Jordan Eds-King, Logan Roberts, and Phillip Dugger, while Kymen Matherly leads the team in interceptions and Will Kerley leads in Sacks.
With Vance behind them the Longhorns went on to roll over both Cloudland and Ashe County, North Carolina, as well as last seasons rivals the Happy Valley Warriors. According to Bray, Our victory over Happy Valley 18-6 cemented our game plan. Our defense kept their star player well under a hundred yards rushing, and it was a big win as most had them picked as the favorite.
The last really big win ultimately came last Thursday as Johnson County traveled to Hampton to take on the Bulldogs. Local rivalries start early and much like their high school counterparts, the Longhorns were eager to crown their near perfect season with a win over the Bulldogs. Yet, Hamptons boys have had a very successful year of their own and were well prepared to give Johnson County a hard time. Playing four quarters of intense defense from both sides, the Longhorns barely squeaked by 8-0 after finally reaching past the goal line late in the game.
Although the Longhorns managed to barely walk away with their record unscathed, Hampton could still prove to be the thorn in Johnson Countys side as the two teams match up one final time for what is expected to be a huge championship match at home Thursday. As the closest brush with defeat this year, the pressure is naturally running high for Johnson County, but fortunately Coach Bray sees just as much optimism. I feel that our players took Hampton for granted the first time around, Bray said. They knew our plays well and we didnt adjust well to theirs even though we worked on it in practice. It will be a fight, but hopefully this time when we punch them they wont be able to dodge it. We will be ready this time.