ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – It had been more than a decade since the Rangers had turned in a winning record on the gridiron – that is, until last fall.

Unaka exploded for a 42-0 victory over North Greene to open the 2021 season, propelling them to a 7-4 record and the school’s first appearance in the 1A state playoffs since 2016.

“[We] brought some momentum into our offseason program and we want to take that momentum and continue that momentum,” Unaka head coach O’Brien Bennett said, “keep rolling, I guess, so to speak, and hopefully we can get over one of those humps this year.”

One of those “humps” is winning a playoff game. It’s something the Rangers have not done in more that two decades. Another focus for Bennett is sustaining the success that the program found last season.

Carter County schools have proven to be very successful on the football field over the years, and particularly recently. Bennett wants the Rangers to be part of that conversation.

“Elizabethton is winning and competing for state titles – Cloudland was in the semifinals last year, he said. “Hampton is competing for state titles, Happy Valley is always good – and so we live in a community that has great football.

“We’ve got to earn that – that’s not going to be given to us,” he continued. “So, we want to earn that and prove we belong there.”

Unaka will have to do that without some key seniors from a season ago – including Devin Ramsey, who earned All-State honors at the 1A as a wide receiver.

“We’re not going to be able to replace those guys easily,” Bennett said. “Those guys were more than just football players for us, they were great leaders.”

But, it seems clear, that a new crop of seniors is ready to take up the mantle and be what the team needs to find success again this fall.

“I think it’s just going to take leadership – people stepping up and letting people know what they did wrong, mistakes,” senior quarterback and linebacker Landon Ramsey explained, “and leadership is really just going to get us to the next level.”

“We got some new guys coming up that’s looking forward to stepping up,” senior running back and defensive back Jamol Blamo said. “We’ve got some new seniors we look up to to lead the team and work hard.”

The Rangers will open their season at home on August 19 against region foe North Greene.