By Jamie Combs
With a tip of the hat to country music legend Kenny Rogers, it was “Twenty Years Ago” that Unaka turned out one of its finest football teams.
Crafting a 7-4 record, the 1991 Rangers are one of only six Unaka squads to win seven or more games. Mickey Taylor was the coach that season, and offered some 20/20 hindsight earlier this week.
“They were a group that worked extremely hard,” Taylor said of his ’91 crew. “I think it was a team that probably had as much balance as maybe I’ve seen during my tenure at Unaka as a coach or administrator. We could throw the ball some. We had two kids that could run it tough inside. We had a little bit of speed with Jason Andes, plus Mark Revis could throw it. We had a couple of receivers.
“It was just a team that gave us some balance. We weren’t one-dimensional on offense, and of course had two great linebackers in Justin Buckles and Jason Brewer. It was a good football team.”
Four of those seven-win efforts came to fruition during the illustrious Lynn Goddard era — 1951 (8-1), ’52 (8-1), ’53 (9-2), ’59 (7-2) — which ended more than a half-century ago (1960).
In the aftermath, the Rangers have enjoyed several solid campaigns — and the 2004 squad went 9-2. The ’91 team, however, is probably Unaka’s best since Goddard said his goodbyes.
“I would put that bunch up with anybody because of the schedule we played,” Taylor said. “We lost a tough game to Hampton, and another game (to Powell Valley). Our punting or kicking game probably cost us two ballgames there. It was a good team. Arguably, it was one of the best.”
Forming the heart of this club were the two skull-thumpers in seniors Brewer and Buckles.
A two-time all-state performer, Brewer was building up to a sensational college career divided between Lees-McRae and Gardner-Webb.
As for Buckles, an all-state honorable mention that season, he would move on to become a good player for Maryville College.
“Of course, Jason Brewer went on to make All-American at Gardner-Webb — so that speaks volumes to what kind of football player he was,” Taylor said. “And then Justin Buckles went on and played four years of football at Maryville, and started there. So there’s two players off that team that played college football for four years. You know Mark had a chance, but he didn’t want to. It kind of speaks to the talent that was on that team. They were talented.”
Another on 1991’s all-state honorable mention list, Revis fortified the quarterback position with his passing skills — working particularly well with Andes and Davey Bishop.
Andes also flourished in the ground game. His finesse combined with power provided by Brewer and Buckles made for an ample running attack.
Chad Buckles served as a key figure in the secondary, as did Andes. Unaka’s line play was spurred by Matt Zimmerman and Larry Talley.
“We had some good linemen,” Taylor said. “We were small, but we had some good players.”
Yielding just 36 points over the first six games, the Rangers then won a 34-27 thriller at Johnson County to raise their record to 6-1.
There was an 8-0 double-overtime victory over homestanding Sunbright in the early going. The one setback in the first seven games was a 10-6 decision at Hampton, where Unaka surrendered less than 100 yards from scrimmage.
“We actually quick-kicked,” said Taylor, speaking of the Hampton contest. “For whatever reason, our squeeze (man) — we called it our squeezer — he didn’t get outside. I remember Brian Taylor ran one back, and it cost us the game. Hampton had a lot to do with that, too.
“Like I said, our punting game had a part in costing us two ballgames. We could have gone 9-1 that year.”
In Game 8, the Rangers hosted second-ranked and undefeated Cloudland with the Smoky Mountain Conference championship on the line. Wounded by a bad second quarter, Unaka wound up losing 28-6.
“I gambled on a situation early in the game, when we went for it on a fourth-and-short,” Mickey Taylor said. “It was probably on our side of the field. The reason I did that is I felt that was our best chance to keep it out of (Tim) Clipse’s hands — and try and get a first down. And again, it was because of our punting game that I made that decision.
“They were a really good team that year and stopped us, and went down and scored and kind of took a little air out of us. But we had some great ballgames that year. We beat Johnson County in a great ballgame up there.”
After dropping a close decision (18-12) to Powell Valley, Unaka capped the regular season by roughing up North Greene 36-14.
From there came a 35-14 Class A playoff loss to 10th-rated Coalfield, which broke up a close game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
In the end, with everything taken into account, Unaka had sculpted a nice body of work.
“It was a good football team, a really fun bunch to coach — and they worked hard,” said Taylor, who now works in the central office for Carter County Schools. “I enjoyed them.
“A lot of them have gone on to do well in life, and I still stay in contact with them. It’s just a good bunch — a good bunch of boys and I’m still proud of them today.”
Jamie Combs is the sports editor for the Elizabethton Star. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org