Legendary University of Tennessee football coach Robert Neyland developed several game maxims that are still being used by coaches at every level of football today. One of them was, “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.”
This might be a Tony Lambert maxim for high school football: “The team that wants to play in November will find a way to win.”
That has been Lambert’s mantra since the regular season ended for his Oneida team with a 22-14 loss at Coalfield on Halloween night. He preached it in the week leading up to Friday’s opening round playoff game against Sullivan North, and he was still preaching it once the game was over.
Oneida looked very much like a team that wanted to keep playing when it took the field against the Raiders. The Indians’ defense was as dominant as it has been all season, limiting Sullivan North to 56 yards of offense and allowing the Raiders just one snap on the Oneida side of the 50-yard-line.
Their reward for that 35-0 win? A three-hour road trip to upper East Tennessee to face one of the state’s hottest Class 2A teams in Hampton. The Bulldogs demolished Cumberland Gap, 50-0, in their opening round game and enter this week’s second round game with eight consecutive wins under their belt after a 1-2 start to the season.
“We’ve had some dog fights either way throughout the years,” Lambert said of his team and Hampton. And indeed they have. The two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2011, when Oneida memorably upset the Bulldogs in the second round, 20-16. But the Indians are riding a four-game winning streak against Hampton, dating back to a 26-14 win in an early-season game in 2008 — a game that kicked off Oneida’s march to the Class 1A state semifinals. Most recently, Oneida earned a 14-8 win in an early-season game in 2014.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach (Michael) Lundsford,” Lambert said of Hampton’s fourth-year head coach. “Both Coach Lundsfords (Mike Lundsford, Cloudland’s former head coach, is an assistant on his son’s staff at Hampton). Those are friends of mine. But they would like to beat us, just like we’d like to beat them.”
Lambert said the two teams play similar styles of football.
“They’re tough, they’re physical, but when we play we’re tough and physical,” he said. “We’ll have to find out who wants it the most. Teams that want to play in November find a way to play in November. If our guys play like we’re capable, I don’t worry about who we’re playing. I just worry about how we play.”
While Hampton represents a formidible challenge, Lambert’s team is battle-tested. Nine of the Indians’ 10 regular season opponents qualified for the playoffs — with Wartburg being the only exception — and Oneida faced three Mr. Football finalists throughout the course of the season.
“We’ve got the tools to play with anybody,” he said. “When we don’t beat ourself, we’re right in the thick of it. If we want to keep playing, it’ll be a dog fight.”
When listening to Lambert talk about this week’s game, you get the idea that he’s issuing a challenge to his team: show up with the fire it takes to beat a Top 10 team on the road, and a rematch with Region 2-2A champion Meigs County will await. Oneida played well enough through three-plus quarters of football to beat the Tigers at home earlier this season before some mistakes cost them late, and Lambert would like nothing better than for his team to have another shot at the team that hasn’t lost a conference game since Region 2-2A was rebuilt three years ago.
“There’s nobody that I know of that should be more battle-tested than our team,” Lambert said. “Now that and 50 cents won’t get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s if you don’t know what to do with it. But there shouldn’t be any place we go to or anybody we play where we’re intimidated. I’ll say it again: Those who want to play in November will find a way to keep playing.”