Chattanooga prep football is down to three teams, from a beginning contingent of 11, still vying for state championships.
Here's how the many have fallen:
Lookout Valley, Tyner, Hixson and Signal Mountain went down in the first round.
In the second round, Baylor and McCallie dropped out after receiving first-round byes and were joined on the sideline by Notre Dame and Silverdale Baptist Academy.
So, that’s leaves the three survivors – East Hamilton, Ooltewah and Boyd-Buchanan.
In Friday night quarterfinal matchups, the third-ranked Hurricanes (11-1) – the state rankings are by murphyfair.com – travel to top-ranked Giles County (12-0) in Class 4A, the Owls (9-3) will play at Columbia Central (10-2) at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Class 5A and Boyd-Buchanan (11-1) heads up I-75 to tackle top-ranked Knoxville Grace (10-1) in Class 2A.
All three teams are within two wins of reaching the championship game.
“That hit me after our game last week (at Lenoir City),” Ooltewah senior linebacker Stuart Doss said. “I’ve never been farther than the second round so this is all new to me. It’s really exciting. The whole team is excited about what we’re doing.”
Each game kicks off at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
All six teams in games involving local schools are hot, but none more than Giles County, which is on a sizzling 12-game winning streak – its entire season. Coach Ted Gatewood’s Hurricanes have won 10 in a row since losing for the only time to Ooltewah on Aug. 24.
Coach Shannon Williams’ Owls are on a seven-game roll and Columbia’s Lions have flattened four straight foes.
Knoxville Grace has captured seven straight and coach Grant Reynolds’ Bucs have notched three successive wins since losing to Class 4A on Oct. 19.
The stage is set.
There is a nip in the air.
Turn on the lights.
Let’s play some football:
Ooltewah (9-3) at Columbia Central (10-2)
The Owls’ three losses, all at home on successive Friday nights, were dealt by Cleveland, Siegel, McMinn County – one team that thought it made the playoffs and two teams that did. Those three teams went 24-6 and Siegel is 11-0 and in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
Ooltewah prepped for the postseason with a schedule that includes two 10-win teams and two nine-win teams. But that is history. The Owls have to contend with a Columbia Central squad, that can’t be taken lightly just because it played six teams with records at .500 or below.
“It’s hard to say they’re the best team we’ve played because we played Siegel,” Owls coach Shannon Williams said. “But they’re not far behind, if they’re behind at all.”
Columbia coach Howard Stone, a 29-year veteran who’s in his first year as the head man after four years serving as the defensive coordinator, assessed how the Lions reached the quarterfinals.
“The main reasons we’re here is that we improved on the offensive and defensive lines and had a lot of luck,” Stone said. “Over time we got better in the latter part of the season.”
When the season began, Stone thought the Lions, who have been playing football for 101 years with state titles in 1952 and 2010, with a runner-up finish in 2009, would win “about six ballgames and possibly make it to the first round of the playoffs.” Yet, they lost to only Dickson County (28-0) and Baylor (24-7).
“Baylor just lined up and ran right at us,” Stone said. “We had some opportunities, but just couldn’t finish drives.”
Instead of hitting the panic button after Baylor stopped them in their tracks, the Lions – they’re in their 11th postseason – stuck with a strong running game, highlighted by backs Chris Martin and Mario Williams, complimented by an effective passing attack triggered by quarterback Matthew Markham.
Martin has piled up 949 yards on 152 carries, with 15 touchdowns. Williams has gained 405 on 49 carries – an 8.2-yard average – and scored four touchdowns. Markham threw for 1,694 yards and 13 touchdowns, with three interceptions. Dre Hall is the team’s leading receiver with 52 receptions and 888 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Scheme-wise,” Williams said, “they’re a little bit like East Hamilton. They use a lot of two-back, tight end personnel that you don’t see a lot throughout the year. They’re probably more athletic than East Hamilton. I think they’re the best running team that can throw the ball, too, that we’ve seen all year.
“They can do just about anything pretty effectively. They’ve got a bunch of seniors that won a state championship two years ago as sophomores. They expect to win, they know how to win and they’re well-coached.”
Williams said the Owls, 3-0 in quarterfinal appearances, have to overcome adversity to win Friday’s showdown with the Lions.
First, there’s the long bus ride to southern Middle Tennessee. However, the Owls will make the trek knowing they’re 5-0 in road games this season.
Secondly, the injuries have mounted in recent weeks.
Freshman linebacker Jeremiah Jackson, the team’s leading tackler with 89.5 stops, including 14 for loss and four sacks, is hobbled with a knee injury. He tore the meniscus and sprained the MCL as an eighth-grader in a summer all-star game and reinjured it Friday night in a 31-7 win over Lenoir City.
Williams lists Jackson as questionable.
“I should be ready by Friday,” Jackson said. “I thank God for giving me my talent. I’m a young man trying to do big things. I really want to play.”
Starting offensive right tackle William Sanders is out with a concussion with no chance of playing. Cornerback T.J. Davis is questionable-to-probable with a shoulder injury. Starting right guard Nathan Weber is out with strep throat. Chris Dyess, Garrett Morrison and Dennis Lyle are being prepped to fill in on the line.
The Owls’ defense, which begrudgingly allowed 11 points while the offense scored 41 on the average in the late-season winning streak, is buoyed by the Doss twin brother act – Stuart and Alex.
Alex is the Owls’ second-leading tackler with 88, including 11 for loss and a team-high 5.5 sacks. Stuart has 75.5 tackles, third on the list, 10 for loss, three sacks, five interceptions (he returned four for touchdowns), five pass break ups, 10 deflections, six fumble recoveries, two forces fumbles and two blocked punts.
The Owls have a simple defensive philosophy – run and hit.
“That’s the name of our defense – speed and physicality,” Stuart Doss said. “We use those things to our advantage in trying to dominate everybody we play.”
What is Stone’s assessment of the Owls’ defense?
“There are 11 guys out there who can run,” he said. “There are 11 guys who can hit. That always spells trouble. Being a defensive coordinator for so long, I always say if you give me guys who can run and hit, I’ll have a good defense. Ooltewah has a really good defense.”
East Hamilton (11-1) at Giles County (12-0)
Hurricanes quarterback Hunter Moore pondered the question after practice.
Is Giles County the best team East Hamilton will face to this point of the season?
“We’ve watched a lot of film on them,” said Moore, who has thrown for 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns in helping the once-beaten Hurricanes reach the playoff quarterfinals. “We played Ooltewah, too. Both of those teams are very good. Giles County is No. 1 for a reason.”
And what is that?
“They’re real fast,” he said. “We’ve played some fast teams but we have real fast guys who can outrun people. Giles County will be able to stay with our speed, I think. I don’t think we’ve played anyone like them all year, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Giles County and East Hamilton each have explosive offenses – the Bobcats average 44.6 points per game, East Hamilton 44.3.
Conversely, each team has a downright dogged defense. The Bobcats are No. 1 against the score, giving up 6.7 points a game and the Hurricanes are third at 7.3.
The defenses have the potential to take over the game.
“That’s what a lot of people are talking about,” East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said. “Sometimes it turns out that one of the offenses starts clicking, so it’s going to be interesting to see how all that plays out.
“For us, it’s another great opportunity to go over there and measure ourselves against an established program.”
The Bobcats are making their 17th playoff appearance – they won a state title in 2009 – and sixth trip to the quarterfinals. East Hamilton’s program is four years and 43 games old.
Despite the extended tradition gap between the Bobcats and Hurricanes, the game will be decided on the field and Gatewood said his team is confident as the showdown in Pulaski looms just hours away.
“I think our kids are relaxed, loose, focused and enjoying the moment,” he said. “They’re intense while we’re working and don’t think we’re scrambling around grasping at straws. We’ve got a game plan and a good idea of what we want to do offensively and defensively.”
It’s really not surprising to Gatewood the Hurricanes aren’t uptight as the pressure mounts with each advancement in the Class 2A state playoff bracket.
“I think that’s what happened last year when we lost in the first round of the playoffs,” he said. “We’ve talked about that – act like you’ve been here before.”
And don’t think East Hamilton players are concerned about getting on a bus, riding two-plus hours to Pulaski and facing the high-octane Bobcats.
“No,” said Moore. “We like road games. We’ll be on chartered busses and that will be kind of cool.”
For the record, East Hamilton is 5-0 in road games this season.
The East Hamilton-Giles County game will be streamed live on the TSSAA Network (www.tssaanetwork.com).
Boyd-Buchanan (11-1) at Knoxville Grace (10-1)
The Bucs, who won a state title in 2003 and lost in the title game in 2002 and 2004, lost only to Maplewood (36-16) this year a week before beating Copper Basin (48-14) for the District 5-A championship. Maplewood lost in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.
In fact, Boyd-Buchanan makes a habit of playing a tough schedule designed to prepare the Bucs for the postseason. During the season, the Bucs played five playoff-bound teams and beat four of them, including perennial title contender South Pittsburg.
“It says a lot about our program and work ethic of the kids and coaches to still be playing this time of year,” Bucs coach Grant Reynolds said.
Boyd-Buchanan opened the season with eight straight wins, outscoring those opponents by an average margin of 37-9, and after the Maplewood loss regained its mojo roars into this week’s challenging game against Knoxville Grace.
The Rams are looking for their first state championship and served notice through the season that it will take a strong defensive effort to slow them down. Grace is averaging 34.5 points and giving up 16.6. Aside from their lone loss to Christian Academy of Knoxville (27-19), Rockwood played Grace the closest before losing 12-7.
“They have a quality program,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to have to play very well to beat them. Absolutely, we can’t make turnovers, keep drives alive and complete some timely passes to keep them off balance.”
Included in the Rams’ 12-schedule to this point are eight playoff teams that have a combined record of 61-30.
“Like us, Grace had a victory over South Pittsburg,” Reynolds said. “They’re one of the best teams we’ve played this year, if not the best. They’re similar to Rockwood that we played in the first round. They’re a wing-T type team and they’re big and physical.”
Reynolds said the Bucs have to play solid fundamental defense against the Rams. Offensively, they have to block the Rams’ front seven on defense and stay on those blocks.
The Bucs will go into Knoxville with confidence as their travelmates.
“Our kids enjoy being with each other right now,” the coach said. “They have confidence in what they’re doing and what they’re being coached to do. That helps make the game plan work.”
The Bucs’ primary offensive weapons are quarterback Jim Cardwell and running back Rance Harden. Cardwell has almost 2,000 yards passing and running the football and Harden is well past 1,000 rushing yards.
All Games Times Eastern
Boyd-Buchanan (11-1) at Knoxville Grace (10-1), 7 p.m.
East Hamilton (11-1) at Giles County (12-0), 8 p.m.
Ooltewah (9-3) at Columbia (10-2), 8 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)