It doesn’t take a pair of undefeated teams to make a good Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association playoff matchup.
On the coachT.com website, 16 games were highlighted as top first-round games and none of the 32 teams had an unblemished season, but there are seven one-loss teams on the list, 12 with two losses and 13 have lost three games.
Four of the games involve Chattanooga area squads – Notre Dame, East Hamilton, Silverdale Baptist and Cleveland.
At 9-1, Silverdale has the best record among the locals mentioned in the first-round contests and the Seahawks host Rockwood (7-3) on Friday.
East Hamilton (8-2) entertains tradition-rich Oak Ridge (7-3) while Notre Dame (7-3) hosts Cascade (7-3), out of Wartrace, and Cleveland (7-3) will travel to White County (8-2).
All playoff games leading up to Championship Saturday at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville on Dec. 6 begin at 7 p.m. local time and admission is a TSSAA-mandated $8.
“After evaluating (Cascade), this is not a normal six-seed football team,” Irish coach Charles Fant said. “They’re really good, very disciplined and they run the ball well mainly because of a Creed Rose, a 5-foot-10, 221-pounder who has power and is also a slasher. It’s rare to see a kid run like that who’s that big.”
Just to see how third-seeded Notre Dame’s defense does against Rose will probably be worth the price of admission to the Class 3A state playoff game at Notre Dame on Friday.
Rose gained 92 yards on 15 carries and ran for a 15-yard touchdown in the Champions’ 35-13 loss to top-ranked Christ Presbyterian Academy last week. Against Page, Rose rushed for 187 yards in a 21-20 loss to Page.
“At moments we played well, but at moments we didn’t,” Cascade coach Kenny Parker said at the time in a story posted on the Shelbyville Times-Gazette website.
Even before a writer could finish a question, Fant said of the Champions, “They remind me of Coalfield. They run it and run it and run it and they’re not concerned with big plays. They want to slow the game down and move the chains.”
Against Coalfield, a game the Irish won, 21-14, midway through a three-game winning streak to close the regular season, Notre Dame was limited to four possessions and 20 plays in the first half. When the Irish went up 14-7 early in the third quarter, Coalfield went more to a spread attack and the Irish had 35 second-half plays.
“When you run less than 60 plays in a game, that’s not many,” Fant said. “We usually run 68 to 70 plays a game.”
Riding a modest winning streak has the Irish on a confidence high going into the first-round game while the Champions (7-3, 2-3 District 12-AAA) have lost two of their last three games.
Fant, a former quarterback at Vanderbilt, believes “the streak” will be a factor this week.
“Since we lost to Polk County (12-10 on Oct. 11), we have increasingly had great practices and our preparation has been the best I’ve seen all year,” Fant said.
In fact, the Irish have been on a tear down the stretch.
Notre Dame defeated Sequatchie County, Coalfield and Grundy County down the stretch by a combined score of 96-14 and shout out the Indians and Yellow Jackets.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum going and we want to keep it going and beating teams,” said junior linebacker Kealey Green, who missed last season’s one-sided 47-7 second-round loss to Giles with a concussion.
“They run the ‘pistol’ formation and they have a big running back, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen this season. Our four linebackers, me, (junior) Josh Russell, (senior) Brandon Harris and (sophomore) Tyler Enos, are pretty good. Enos is a freak. He plays both ways and is very athletic and can do it all. We’ve got a lot of faith in each other. It’s a good group. It’s unbelievable.”
Enos leads the Irish with 132 tackles, 16 for loss, and four sacks. Green has 109 stops, 12 for loss, and four sacks.
The three closing wins came after Notre Dame lost star two-way lineman Joe Dossett, a junior, dislocated his shoulder – for the second time – against Polk and has undergone season-ending surgery. Dossett plays right tackle on offense and defensive end/linebacker on defense.
“Despite that we’re going into this playoff as healthy as any football team I’ve been around,” Fant said. “(Junior) Hunter Whiting and (senior) Zach Grannon have filled in for Dossett offensively and (sophomore) Robert Murphy is our third defensive end – he had three sacks last week and has nine or 10 on the season. Also, (junior) Chris Hornsby has really blossomed at linebacker and Russell has been fantastic as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker.
“We use a 3-4 defense and drop down a linebacker sometimes to give us a four-front. Our defense has been our saving grace this year. They’ve been incredible. They’ve kept us in games when the offense sputtered.”
Notre Dame has several offensive weapons Cascade will have to deal with as well.
Running back Auston Banks, a junior, has rushed for 1,062 yards – he averages 106.2 yards per game – and 10 touchdowns. Junior Ricky Ballard and senior Clay Heltzel have combined for 560 yards and eight scores. Sophomore quarterback Alex Darras has completed 53 of 103 passes for 842 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The third-seeded Irish, who went 4-1 and finished second to Signal Mountain in District 7-AA, averaged 27.8 points per game and allowed just 11.1 during the season. And Signal Mountain, which enjoys running up big margins of victory any chance it can, earned a hard-fought, 20-13, win over Notre Dame.
Talented junior Kareem Orr, who plays wide receiver, running back and free safety, said the Irish will go into Friday’s game strong mentally.
“Our confidence level is high,” Orr said. “Our offense is effective. The defense has been playing good, so that gives us pretty good balance.”
Orr’s versatility and skills show up big-time in stats. He’s the Irish’s leading receiver with 51 receptions for 888 yards – that’s a 17.4-yard average per catch – with eight touchdowns and rushed for 94 yards on 17 carries.
Defensively, Orr and Jared Andrews each have four interceptions, tops on the team, and Orr has returned two for touchdowns.
Cascade’s offense puts up 25.6 points while the defense yielded 17.3 during the regular season.
While Fant is gaining more information daily on the Champions, he has a past connection with the section of Middle Tennessee that includes Wartrace from his playing days at Vanderbilt.
“When I was at Vanderbilt, and Gerry DiNardo was the coach, we went over to Webb School in Bell Buckle (5 miles north of Wartrace and surrounded by rolling hills and sprawling horse farms) all four years for preseason camp,” Fant said. “We spent three weeks there and there was no hot water, no cell phones back then so we couldn’t call out. After that first camp, we started calling it “Hell Buckle.” It was always the worst three weeks of my life.”
Fant was at Vanderbilt from 1991-95 after playing quarterback and safety in high school at Goshen, Ohio.
He was recruited seriously by “about 60” colleges, he said, as a defensive back.
“But Vandy gave me a chance to play quarterback,” Fant said. “I visited Kansas, Ohio State, Army and Vandy. After I told Vandy I was coming there, I didn’t take any other visits.”
Out of college Fant went into the private business sector and had no intentions of ever becoming a teacher and coach. He was a pharmaceutical salesman and owned his own financial planning/insurance/investment firm, which enabled him to serve as a volunteer coach at Boyd-Buchanan and Ringgold, Ga.
Fant gave up his own company to teach – you guessed it, Personal Finance – and coach. This is his third year coaching full-time, the second as a head coach.
“There was a lot of prayer going on when I made that change,” Fant said. “After three weeks at Notre Dame, I wish I had done it years before. Every day I wake up excited to get out of bed. It probably wasn’t the greatest pay-cut decision I’ve made, but thank God I did.”
TSSAA First-Round Playoff Games
All Games Start at 7 p.m. Local Time
Bradley Central (5-5) at Maryville (10-0)
Lenoir City (5-5) at Rhea County (9-1)
Cleveland (7-3) at White County (8-2)
Oak Ridge (7-3) at East Hamilton (8-2)
Stone Memorial (6-4) at Ooltewah (8-2)
Marshall County (4-6) at Signal Mountain (7-3)
Central (5-5) at Sequoyah (8-2)
East Ridge (5-5) at Hixson (7-3)
Grundy County (4-6) at Upperman (10-0)
Tyner (4-6) at Smith County (6-4)
Cascade (7-3) at Notre Dame (7-3)
Sequatchie County (5-5) at Polk County (8-2)
Rockwood (7-3) at Silverdale Baptist (9-1)
Middle Tenn. Christian (6-4) at Marion County (8-2)
Boyd-Buchanan (4-6) drew a bye
South Pittsburg (9-1) drew a bye
Pope John Paul (4-6) at Baylor (6-4)
McCallie (3-7) at Father Ryan (6-4)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)