By Matt Hill
Any time Hampton and Cloudland get together its a battle between two respectful but bitter rivals and this past weekend in Gray saw something that was very special for a group of ninth graders between the two schools.
Hampton and Cloudland were able to face off in the championship game of the Johnson City Honda Trailblazer Classic and it was yet another classic battle that was taken by the Bulldogs by a score of 67-59.
The Hampton-Cloudland basketball rivalry has been one of the best around over the last decade with both teams reaching the state tournament in recent years, but to meet in a freshmen tournament championship game with several AAA and AA teams in it is truly remarkable.
The Bulldogs were able to get the upper hand with a great fourth quarter and coach Lucas Andrews was very pleased with how the team was able to win such a big ball game.
“The whole week was very big for these boys,” he said. “They beat Greeneville, Volunteer and Cloudland which are three very good teams. These boys have put in many hours of hard work and by beating these three teams it gives them something to show for that.
“We have 10 guys on the team and two are out with injuries and the others have picked up the slack. All of the boys are good ball players and I feel no matter which five are on the floor we will be OK. All of them bring so much to the table and each one is a different player from the rest. To have five players in double figures truly shows how good this team could be if they keep up the hard work.”
These two schools along with Johnson County, the team Cloudland beat in the semifinals, have had some battles since seventh grade with Johnson County winning the seventh grade title two years ago and Cloudland winning the District last year.
Now Hampton has a major stake in the local bragging rights by winning this prestigious tournament.
“The boys from both Little Milligan and Hampton Middle School have fallen to Cloudland in the past and I used that to fuel the fire,” Andrews said. “Not once this year have I been concerned before a game. These boys give 100 percent every game and love to win just as much as I do. When I saw the bracket I told the boys if you do your job we will see Cloudland or Johnson County in the finals and these boys like playing neighboring rivals just like everybody else.
The Cloudland defeat doesn’t take away from a great tournament for the Highlanders. Gary Harrison’s squad played the game of the tournament against Johnson County the night before where Cloudland had to survive two desperation three-point attempts to earn the win.
Cloudland, playing without varsity starter Zak Benfield, didn’t have anything left by the end of the contest.
“It was a good tournament,” Harrison said. “Our kids fought hard for three and a half quarters and though we didn’t execute well we played hard. We ran out of gas at the end.”
Part of the reason Cloudland was spent was the tough game with Johnson County and Harrison thought the wear and tear from that contest took its toll in the fourth quarter.
“Johnson County is a tough physical team and we did a good job of keeping them off the glass,” he said. “Tonight we did a good job for three and half quarters, but in the fourth quarter that hurt us the most. We didn’t block out like had been doing.”
Andrews didn’t think Cloudland not having Benfield was a big factor either way.
“Benfield is a great player and that’s why he is getting good minutes for their varsity, but I did not consider it a break. Like I said we have two kids also,” he said.
Everybody for both schools played outstanding and it was a great game between two schools who are neighbors that are going to have a lot more battles in the future.
“Cloudland is a well-coached team and has several good players and we knew this going into this game,” Andrews said. “We knew we had to play a solid game and not make many mistakes to win the game.
“We got down seven points twice and brought it back and the game was mostly a two to four point game for most of the game. We made a few changes at half time and towards the end of the fourth that helped us.”