Home sweet home.
After three consecutive road tests, eighth-ranked Elizabethton is riding high as it returns to familiar ground.
The Cyclones (1-0, 3-1) have a test on their hands, however, with potentially their biggest Three Rivers Conference game of the season as unbeaten Sullivan North (1-0, 4-0) comes to Dave Rider Field tonight.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” said Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten. “But the kids are focused and anytime we’ve put a challenge in front of them, they’ve responded.
“This will be our first home game in three weeks and that will be big for us. We’re ready to play a game here and get back on our field.”
Defense has been the name of the game for Elizabethton since its 27-13 loss at Science Hill as the Cyclones have taken their frustration out on Happy Valley (41-0) and, last week, at Tuscola, N.C. (35-0).
Turnovers created on that side of the football has boosted morale for the orange and black, and given opponents a headache.
Last week, Elizabethton tallied five interceptions and forced two fumbles with Chad Pritchard stepping out with three interceptions and two touchdowns on returns.
Combined with four forced fumbles at Happy Valley, the Cyclones have created 11 turnovers in its last two games.
“Anytime you force turnovers on defense and score points, it’s big for your team,” said Witten. “We’ve forced 11 turnovers in the last two weeks. We had five interceptions last week and forced four fumbles at Happy Valley. As big as our defense plays, it’s helping put us in position to score points on offense.”
Offensively, the Cyclones have gotten an edge early the last two weeks with solid play at quarterback from McKinley Berry, who has completed a large chunk of his throws to a diverse group of receivers including Zack Treadway, Drew Holtsclaw, Wes Montgomery and Pritchard.
“Our red-zone offense has got to be better when we can get those opportunities,” said Witten. “But the last two weeks we’ve been up 14-0 after the first quarter at Happy Valley and 14-0 after the half at Tuscola. We’re finding a way to come out and play early and get a little bit of space and it’s creating momentum.”
Any early momentum will be key against a Sullivan North team that has used its power running game to an advantage against opponents this year.
The Raiders outlasted Volunteer and Eastside, Va., then turned it up the last two weeks with decisive wins Sullivan East and Union County to set up tonight’s battle.
Kairi Thompson has been the big force on the ground for North. Against East, Thompson rushed for 159 yards and three touchdowns. The standout tailback is joined by a talented running quarterback, Cory Rowe.
“They’ve got two really good backs,” said Witten. “North, for what they do, is really good in that system. Their staff does a great job and they’re always playing at a high level and almost always undefeated when we meet them.”
For the first time since Witten’s been head coach at Elizabethton, the Cyclones will have a size advantage on the line against the Raiders.
That battle could tell the tale when it’s all said and done.
“I think the biggest difference in North from just the last couple of years, probably the first time in five years, is we’re bigger than them up front,” said Witten. “Overall, this is a big one for us, a big one for them and this is basically a game going for the conference championship.”
Following the Cyclone walk at 5:15, the game will kick-off at 7:30 from Brown-Childress Stadium.
CYCLONE LEADERS (THROUGH GAME 4):
PASSING: M. Berry (50-70-3, 654 yds., 8 TD.)
RUSHING: T. Turner (48-305, 3 TD), Z. Moore (22-128), C. Smith (12-108, 1 TD), Berry (14-53, 1 TD).
RECEIVING: Z. Treadway (11-167, 1 TD), C. Pritchard (14-130, 1 TD), W. Montgomery (5-106, 2 TD), D. Holsclaw (5-105)
DEFENSE: L. Nidiffer (31 tackles, 2 sacks), M. Smith (21 tackles, 2 sacks), K. Walters (19 tackles, 0.5 sacks), Pritchard (3 INT, 2 TD, 8 tackles).