A shaky start to the season will be a fading memory for Greenback School when the Cherokees head to Cookeville for a shot at a second state championship in three years.

Greenback fought back from an early third-quarter deficit to pull out a last-minute 27-26 victory over South Pittsburg on Friday and earn the trip to the Class 1A championship game against Lake County at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.

Greenback (12-2) opened the season with two defeats, including a 27-20 loss to Class 2A Meigs County, which also punched a ticket to Cookeville. The Cherokees floundered while transfer quarterback Braden Carnes adapted to his new receivers and the varied Greenback offense.

Carnes clearly learned well. The senior finished Friday’s semifinal win over the Pirates 20 of 43 passing for 323 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

His last scoring toss — a short 3-yard flare to Duke Stinnett racing out of the backfield with 45 seconds in the contest — gave Greenback its first lead since early in the first quarter.

“If you come to us after we get beat by Meigs, you’re going to question how much heart we have,” Holden Willis, Greenback senior wide receiver, said. “If you come to us now and question how much heart we have, you’re crazy. We play with heart, and it shows.”

A large part of that passion came from Willis, who accounted for three of the Cherokee scores among his eight receptions and amassed 183 yards on 10 total touches.

The 6-foot-4 senior receiver outshined Rondo Tipton, a fellow Mr. Football finalist.

Willis opened the scoring after the teams traded punts with a 12-yard reception on a fade route. After South Pittsburg scored on its opening possession of the second half to take a 20-7 lead, Willis completed a 67-yard drive with a hard-fought 1-yard run and then gave Greenback a 21-20 lead with a 54-yard catch and run midway through the third period.

A bad snap on the point-after conversion off its third touchdown put the Pirates in a hole, which eventually cost them the game. When South Pittsburg retook a 26-21 lead with 5:11 remaining in the contest, Greenback’s defense came up with a huge stop on the two-point conversion, giving its offense hope.

Lucas Holmes was true on all three of his point-after attempts to forge the eventual one-point difference. The only Greenback conversion miss came after its final score on the last-minute pass to Stinnett.

Ahead 27-26, the Cherokees went for two to try to build a field goal gap but failed.

The lead held anyway as defenders batted down a desperation pass into the end zone from Pirate quarterback Jaylyn Hubbard on the game’s final play to start the celebration.

“Our guys were a little upset at halftime, being down seven points,” Greg Ryan, Greenback head coach, said. “We talked a lot about adversity. There’s going to be adversity in a game like this, but our guys prepared for everything and just did a great job.”

Ryan and Carnes credited a strong job by both front lines. Carnes was rushed hard throughout the night and escaped several sack attempts by scrambling but usually was able to stand in the pocket and get off his throws.

“Willis made big plays all night,” Carnes said. “He was huge, but I’ve got to give credit to the O-line. Without their blocking up front I’d never have had time to get (Willis) the ball.”

The Cherokees finished with 407 total yards. Greenback advanced mostly through the air while the Pirates ran on 37 of their 49 plays for 315 of their 357 total yards.

Hubbard accounted for 195 of his team’s rushing yards on 15 carries but was 5 of 12 passing for 42 yards.

Tipton was limited to 32 yards rushing on seven carries.

“We heard all week that we can’t beat the South Pitt line,” Derrell Bailey Jr., a Virginia Tech commit, said. “We wanted to make a statement tonight, and I think we got that point across.”