East Hamilton really is the only game in town.
While Boyd-Buchanan, Silverdale, Notre Dame, Ooltewah, Baylor and McCallie hit the road for second round Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association football playoff games on Friday, the third-ranked, once-beaten Hurricanes will be right in their own back yard against Page.
They own the local prep football market.
East Hamilton will be downright protective of its home turf in the Class 4A battle because coach Ted Gatewood’s Hurricanes field one of the state’s stingiest defenses, regardless of classification.
The Hurricanes’ offense has riddled 11 opponents for an average of 41.1 points.
On the other hand, those same opponents scored a meager 87 points – with one caveat.
“Seven points came on an interception,” defensive coordinator Steve Garland said. “We don’t count that.”
Using 80 points to calculate the defense-against-the-score numbers, East Hamilton gives up an average of 7.3 points per game, second only to the 6.7 put up – or, is it held down – by undefeated, top-ranked Giles County, which hosts Notre Dame on Friday.
Giles County gave up 14 points twice (Marshall County and Fairview) in a game and 12 (Lewis County) once. Along the way they posted three shutouts, including a 48-point thrashing of Marshall County, which lost in the first round to East Hamilton, 38-0.
If Giles and East Hamilton win Friday, by the way, they will square off in the quarterfinals in Franklin on Nov. 16.
“If we’re not in it, that’s a game I would like to see,” said Howie Sompayrac, Notre Dame’s athletic director.
Forty-five of the 80 points “Garland’s Gang Green” defense has allowed came in the first two games against Signal Mountain (14) and Ooltewah (31). Since Aug. 24, the Hurricanes have been nothing short of parsimonious in letting any team anywhere near the end zone.
This week, however, the Hurricanes (10-1), ranked No. 3 in Class 4A by murphyfair.com, hope to stop Page (7-4) like they stymied Marshall County, which came into the first round averaging 27.9 points per game.
“But we think we’re pretty good,” said Hunter Parker, a 5-foot-11-inch, 165-pound junior free safety with 54 tackles and 11 pass deflections or break-ups. “We know games are won Monday through Friday, not just Friday nights. The coaches put in a good game plan for us and we go out and execute it.”
With a hangman’s precision.
In a five-game homestretch to the regular season and one round of playoffs, the Hurricanes’ defense against the score dropped to 3.3 points, the snake’s belly low number shoved nearly to the floor by two shutouts.
When East Hamilton’s defense takes the field, no matter the opponent, there is a two-pronged competition on display – the Hurricanes against the foe and within their own unit.
“Everyone does a great job pursuing the ball and swarming to the ballcarrier,” said defensive end Francisco Rodriguez, a 6-foot, 240-pound senior. “It really is like a competition between us. We feed off each other’s energy.
“In our first game, Austin (Gatewood, the coach’s son) and me had a little bet to see which one would get the first sack against Signal Mountain. I won the bet but I still haven’t got my five bucks.”
Rodriguez’s play has paid off handsomely though – 66 tackles, including 40 solos, with 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries.
Against Marshall County, the Hurricanes went after the Tigers’ rushing attack – and stoned it. The Tigers rushed 24 times, gained a miserly 12 yards and were utterly flustered long before the game ended.
“You can kind of tell,” said 6-foot, 205-pound junior linebacker Austin Gatewood, who leads the team with 82.5 tackles (55 solos) and added 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and three caused fumbles. “It was their last game of the season and they were getting frustrated.”
Forced to the air, Marshall County quarterback Austin Stacey completed just 9-of-19 passes for 135 yards with one interception. Running back Kevin Peterson, held to 8 yards on six carries, threw seven passes and completed three for 21 inoffensive aerial yards.
East Hamilton’s junior cornerback, Tre Herndon, is one of the secondary’s ball-hawking stars and despite his wiry 6-foot, 175-pound frame, plays a brand of hard-nosed football that he rock-ribbed unit showcases on a weekly basis.
“I mean, we are a physical defense,” he said. “We like to hit and we’ve got a lot of playmakers on the team.
“Now, with my mindset, when the ball is in the air it’s thrown to me. I don’t like receivers catching balls.”
Herndon leads the Hurricanes with four interceptions and shares the lead with Parker’s 11 pass deflections or break-ups.
“Our defense is really good,” he said. “We’re solid and I don’t think we’ve played our best defensive game yet.”
Said Austin Gatewood, “I hope we’re saving our best for when we really need it.”
Ted Gatewood, who left Ooltewah to “start something from scratch, something fresh” at East Hamilton, has seen his defense improve over the program’s four-year history.
In 2009, East Hamilton gave up an average of 40.7 points per game. That total dropped to 30.9 in Year 2. Last season the Hurricanes held 11 opponents – they reached the playoffs for the first time – to 20.5 points.
And this year, it’s down dramatically to 7.3.
One doesn’t need a sophisticated, multicolored graph to see that downward spiral – just look at the scoreboard.
“Our defense is built on speed and physicality,” coach Gatewood said. “They really get after it. That’s what defense is all about and those kids take pride in that.
“They want to see who gets the biggest hits and it even gets serious in practice. We have to tell them sometimes that we can’t have people getting knocked out in practice because we need them on Friday.”
Garland, a 20-year veteran who had stops at East Ridge Middle School, Loftis Middle and Soddy-Daisy High prior to joining Gatewood at East Hamilton, has relished coaching and – quite frankly – watching his defense play this season.
“Over the course of the year,” he said, “we’ve been pretty good and at times special. We’ve got a nice blend of speed, size, strength and aggressiveness. There’s not one thing that we do any better than others, other than intense physicality.”
Experience helps, too.
Of 19 seniors that alternate on defense, Garland said, seven have been at East Hamilton since the school opened. Three – mike linebacker Harrison Warren, Rodriguez and cornerback Cody Knox – are three-year starters. Four other seniors also helped start the program.
“All those guys took some beatings our first couple years,” Garland said. “When this school opened kids had options to go other places, but chose to come here and build this. We were a laughing stock those first two years, but while that was going on and everybody was having their way with us, Ted had a quiet consistency about what we were doing. We didn’t panic. We stayed the course.”
There was, however, a concerted effort to put more tenacity into the defense prior to the 2011 season.
That bulldogged approach brought the decision to ditch the 4-3 alignment for a 3-4 and the Hurricanes’ defense grew, matured and subsequently allowed the unit to go bonkers on just about every team it faced in 2012.
“This is not a Steve Garland effort,” he said. “It’s a Ted Gatewood thing. It’s Scott Moore (outside linebackers coach). It’s Gerald Jones (defensive back), Brian Kranz (defensive line) and me (inside linebackers).
“The four of us have blended a scheme that Ted brought us. We enjoy this defense. It gives us flexibility. Those guys out there (on the practice field) wearing the black T-shirts are special. We have green shirts, black shirts and white shirts. The black shirts are our identity. (The black shirts) are starters and key substitutes. It’s what you look for in a defender and student-athlete.”
And it’s what opposing team look out for.
Area Second-Round Pairings
All games start at 7 p.m. Local Time
South Pittsburg (8-3) at Gordonsville (10-1)
Boyd-Buchanan (10-1) at Oneida (9-1)
Silverdale (10-1) at Knoxville Grace (9-1)
Trousdale County (8-3) at Marion County (8-2)
Notre Dame (9-2) at Giles County (10-0)
Page (7-4) at East Hamilton (10-1)
Ooltewah (8-3) at Lenoir City (9-2)
Riverdale (8-3) at McMinn County (10-1)
Baylor (8-3) at Memphis University School (8-2)
McCallie (5-5) at Ensworth (10-0)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)