Cherokees hunting for title gold

Greenback School’s Wyatt Rutgerson fights his way downfield Friday in the Cherokees’ 27-26 win over South Pittsburg High School in the Class 1A semifinals.

After suffering a gut-wrenching 24-21 loss to the Whitwell High School Tigers last season in the Class 1A semifinals, Greenback School head football coach Greg Ryan endured a long year of anticipation.

The Cherokees found themselves 12 months later in another thrilling semifinal matchup with the top-ranked South Pittsburg High School Pirates. This time, the Cherokees were not leaving empty handed.

Greenback fell behind 26-21 with 5:11 remaining in the game before quarterback Braden Carnes delivered a short flare to Duke Stinnett with under a minute to go to punch the Cherokees’ ticket to the Class 1A state championship game.

“This may or may not be the facts, but sometimes I believes there’s just destiny among certain things,” Ryan said. “We didn’t play our best game, and we won. I didn’t call the best game or get the guys as prepared as I should’ve, but with that said, for the way the season went for Whitwell, I’m not sure that it wasn’t just some type of destiny for them. This year, it was kind of in reverse. The last couple of times we’ve played South Pittsburg in the semifinals, regardless of who’s had the better team, we’ve come out on the victorious side, and our guys knew that.”

Carnes finished the night 20 of 43 for 323 yards and three touchdowns to become only the second quarterback in Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association history, behind Christian Academy of Knoxville’s Charlie High in 2011, to throw more than 50 touchdowns in a season.

Senior receiver Holden Willis also made history. His two scores set a new state record for most touchdown receptions in a season at 28. Willis was named the 2019 Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award winner for Class 1A on Monday.

“I love this team, I mean I don’t even know what to say,” Willis said following the game. “It means just as much to me as it means to this team going to state. I’m more for the team than I am about myself, and they mean more to me. During the game, I didn’t care much about it, I just cared that we finished like we did.

“I want to thank the people that have come before me and continued to set the bar high,” he added. “I am grateful and blessed to have reached such a record with 28 receiving touchdowns thus far. Records are meant to be broken, and I can’t wait to see who’s next.”

Friday will mark the Cherokees’ fourth appearance in the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl in the last five years. Greenback’s last appearance was in 2017 when Greenback defeated Cornersville 42-21 for the program’s second state title.

Ryan believes his experience at this stage could give the Cherokees an advantage.

“I think from a logistics standpoint, it’s a big deal,” he said. “We went the first time and really didn’t know where we wanted to stay and didn’t know what time we wanted to leave or where we were going to eat or how we were going to do things. This being the fourth time, we’ve got a pretty good handle on all the preparation that has to go along with that weekend, and we understand the stage in which you’re playing on. We try to talk to our guys about it’s just another football game, even though it’s for a championship. If you treat it bigger than what it is ... then the moment might be too big for you. I don’t think that’s an issue with our guys.”

The Cherokees will take on the Lake County High School Falcons (14-0) at 11 a.m. CST at Tennessee Technological University’s Tucker Stadium.

Lake County shut out four opponents this season, including two in the second round and quarterfinals. The Falcons are coming off a 30-20 win over Huntingdon in the semifinals to advance to their first state title game since 1994.

The Falcons are led on offense by senior dual-threat quarterback Tanner Snyder, running back Larry Tubbs and receivers Malachi Taylor and Izaiah Matheny.

“Lake County, they’re more of a spread team with shotgun — I’ve never seen them under center,” Ryan said. “We don’t have a whole big scouting report on them because we’ve traded film, but what we do know is we’ve seen a lot of heavy quarterback runs, whether that be zone read and/or quarterback power stuff. The quarterback is 6’3”, 235 pounds, and he’s more of a power runner. They got a kid named (Larry) Tubbs that will be the tailback beside him, and he’s more of a quick scat back that they try to get him the ball out on the perimeter, but he can run it downhill as well.”

The Cherokees will have a tough task against an athletic defense, but Ryan likes the matchups with his skill players.

“Defensively, all we’ve seen from them is a 3-4 playing man coverage,” he said. “The biggest issue we have week in and week out is facing teams and watching film of teams that ... the opponent we’re fixing to play, watching the offense they’re going against and nothing resembles what we do. It’s very hard to kind of prepare, offensively, for what we’re going to see because you never know what you’re going to get until you get it. The good news is I think we’ve faced about everything that I think you can face. We’re very knowledgeable as far as communication and recognizing what we’re seeing.”

With all of the hype surrounding the game, Willis is taking Ryan’s message to heart.

“It’s another week, we’ve just to got to capitalize — it’s the last week of football for high school,” Willis said. “We played rec league growing up, we started in the back year and played on the same field that we’re playing on now. Our last game Friday was on Cooper Field, and now we’ve just got to finish it in Cookeville.”