BY IVAN SANDERS, Elizabethton Star
JOHNSON CITY—While several beautiful young ladies awaited the opportunity to potentially be crowned as the Liberty Bell homecoming queen at Kermit-Tipton Stadium, the T.A. Dugger Jr. Cyclones took full advantage of its own opportunity and turned an ugly first-half of action into a thing of beauty rallying from a 14-0 first-half deficit to a 28-14 victory.
Proving adages to be true
Anyone familiar with playing the game of football can relate to hearing their coaches say things like ‘stay focused’, ‘one down at a time’, ‘finish the game’, and ‘winners never quit and quitters never win’.
The Jr. Cyclones single-handedly proved every one of these sayings as the team that left the field after the first 16 minutes weren’t the same team that entered the field for the final 16 minutes.
All it took was one play that signaled the turn of momentum with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter when quarterback Dalton Mitchell found Nate Stephens on a 60-yard scoring toss that lit a fire on the Jr. Cyclone sideline.
The scoreboard read 14-6 after the two-point conversion failed.
Skipping straight to turbo mode
Sports writers often say a player takes it to another gear, but for Stephens it wasn’t just another gear—it turned out to be turbo overdrive.
The Jr. Cyclones seized a prime opportunity when Cordell Kandoje blocked a punt to set TAD back in business at the Patriot 26-yard line.
Stephens turned into a beast going through and not around would-be tacklers moving the ball down to the 2-yard line before bursting into the end zone with 2:19 left in the third.
The 2-point conversion found its way into the hands of Hayden Nave to even the score at 14-14.
Sean Smithdeal followed with a 58-yard kickoff that had the makings of bouncing into the end zone before the ball reversed course catching the Patriot receiver off guard.
The Jr. Cyclones hustled downfield and forced a fumble on the pick up at the Patriot 4-yard line.
Stephens then bulldozed his way across the goal line on the ensuing play to give the Jr. Cyclones the go-ahead lead at 22-14 after Stephens leaped high over the Patriot defender to convert the 2-point play from Mitchell.
Sealing the deal
The Jr. Cyclone defense was a hungry bunch in the second half and resolved to bend not break the rest to the way as Stephens put the proverbial nail in the coffin when he snared a pass out of the air and raced 48 yards to extend the lead to 28-14 with only 24 seconds remaining to play.
Next man up
The Jr. Cyclones were dealt a hard blow in the opening half when Cade Russell, a key offensive and defensive cog, and lineman Sam Bowers went out of the game with injuries.
With Peyton Johnson out from Monday’s game against Gate City, the Jr. Cyclones could have very well have hung their heads and given up.
But the next man up mentality preached through the entire Cyclone organization again proved true with the next players in line stepping up to pave the way to victory.
“Coach (Ryan) Witten and Coach (Travis) Smithdeal told us to keep our heads up and keep believing in each other,” Mitchell said after the game. “We talked about the next man up. He (Russell) went out, and we had to put another man in.
“Nate stepped up on offense, and we had big plays on defense. It definitely shows our brotherhood between the players and the coaches and how much we have bonded together.”
Nate’s take on the game
“Cade went down, and I had good blocking from my line so I decided to find the hole and run as fast as I could. I was thinking that we could get back in this on that first pass. It just gave us all energy.
“On the interception, I got excited when I saw it coming to me, and I just started to run it back. We all got excited as a team—it was special.”
Smithdeal shakes out the game
“I saw it in Nate’s eyes at practice yesterday because he had a great practice yesterday. These eighth graders trust in us and listen to us.
“Nate Stephens stepped up when we needed him, Mitchell stepped up when we needed him, the linebackers stepped up when we needed them, and the line made blocks when we needed them.
“That was one of the most fun and most memorable games that I have ever seen or coached in or been around.
“We never doubted ourselves, and always just kept believing. It’s hard when you see Cade Russell and Sam Bowers go out of the game and then there was Peyton from Monday’s game.
“It’s just Elizabethton Cyclones playing Cyclone football.”
Ring those bells
The Cyclone fans cannot be left out as there was a large contingent that sat out several heavy rain downpours to cheer the Jr. Cyclones on to victory.
Most noticeable was an abundant amount of cowbells that rang out enthusiastically throughout. Kudos to the TAD fanbase.