Perhaps no Chattanooga-area football player is more appreciative for his school’s participation in the 2015 TSSAA state playoffs than Tyner’s Shannon Spralls, a hard-charging running back and hard-nosed middle linebacker.
Spralls has spent his entire prep career with the Rams, but his on-field contribution the first three years was severely limited by serious injuries that might have broken a mentally weaker youngster.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound senior played in portions of eight games in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
That’s eight of a potential 30 regular-season games, plus the three postseason games Tyner played in that span.
Freshman – Torn left medial collateral ligament (MCL) in the season’s second game.
Sophomore – Torn right MCL and meniscus in the third game.
Junior – Broken fibula in his right leg.
“After a while I thought I had a three-game curse,” Spralls said. “It seemed like I couldn’t get past that third game. And when I tore my second MCL, I was like, ‘Wow! This has happened in back-to-back years and I wondered if I should even be playing football.’ Then I thought about how long I’ve been playing football and how much I love the game.
“What really hurt me was sitting on the sideline when I was hurt and unable to help my team.”
Thankfully, Spralls, who will lead the Rams against undefeated and top-ranked Boyd-Buchanan in a second round Class 2A playoff showdown on Friday at 7 p.m. at Boyd-Buchanan, has a different story to tell this week.
He has been an integral player in Tyner’s return to the postseason after slumping to 2-8 last year and missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
“In the last 3 ½ games we’ve played, counting last week’s playoff game against Watertown,” Rams coach Wayne Turner said, “Shannon has done a great job running the ball. And he’s been a major influence for us defensively. He’s a tremendous athlete.
“He’s solid and this is the first year he’s had the opportunity to play the whole season.”
The Rams take an 8-3 mark into Friday’s game, along with the memory of a 40-7 regular-season loss to the top-ranked Bucs (11-0,) and Spralls has put up superb statistics.
Offensively, he has rushed for 832 yards on 109 carries – a 7.6-yard average per carry – and registered 13 touchdowns. As a receiver out of the backfield, Spralls has four receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown.
On defense, Spralls had 131.5 tackles, including 88 solo stops, 23 tackles for loss, nine sacks and two interceptions.
Spralls has been a more relaxed and effective player since he got through the Rams’ third game (a 48-16 thrashing of Signal Mountain). He’s been nothing short of phenomenal during the team’s current five-game winning streak; especially the last three-plus contests that saw Tyner outscore those foes by a combined 158-41.
“Once the third game came around, I just prayed and told myself there were no curses,” Spralls said. “I felt like I could complete the season knowing I came out of the Signal Mountain game healthy. I’m just blessed.
“Last year we didn’t even get a chance to test the playoffs. All we’ve been talking about is getting back to the playoffs and I told my teammates I was going to do anything I could to help and be a part of that. This is my first playoff, so it’s a big deal to me.”
Frankly, Spralls is not unique in that Friday’s game –the Rams’ 11th straight road playoff contest – is a hugely important to this point for everyone involved on both teams.
The winner advances and will host the quarterfinal matchup against either Marion County or Forrest on Nov. 20.
Playing at home in recent years has been a rarity, something that rubbed Turner the wrong way until this season.
“I have no qualms being on the road in the playoffs this year because when you finish third in the region (behind Boyd-Buchanan (11-0) and Marion County (10-1) that’s where you’re going – on the road. I knew that before the season began. In years past when we were district champions and had to play at Alcoa in the first round that was totally wrong.”
Turner has seen the other side of the home-versus-away situation as well. From 2001-04, Tyner played 10 straight playoff games at home, winning six times. Heading into this week’s Boyd-Buchanan game, the Rams are 4-6 in 10 consecutive road games.
The Bucs, who have a string of 18 playoff appearances, present a huge obstacle for anyone hoping to extend runs in the playoffs.
“They’re going to be a good, solid football team,” Turner said. “Grant (Bucs coach Reynolds) and his assistants do a tremendous job preparing those kids and executing a game plan. What we have to do is eliminate turnovers and mistakes and execute the way we have the last three or four ballgames.”
The Bucs beat seven Region 3-2A opponents by an average score of 31.4-15.3 to claim the league title and roll into Friday having won 16 of their last 17 games dating to the lone loss (24-21) against Rockwood in the first round last season.
The 1996 Bucs, coached by Robert Akins, went 10-0 in the regular season – the only other time that’s happened before this year – and finished 11-1. The 21-7 second-round loss was dished out by Battle Ground Academy.
Although the Bucs have won more games in a single season, the 11-1 mark in 1996 remains the best – percentage-wise – in the school’s history. The Bucs went 12-2 in 2003 when they won the school’s only state football championship by routing Friendship Christian, 38-0.
In 2009, Boyd-Buchanan reached the title game only to suffer a tough 13-7 loss against Trousdale County and finish 12-2.
“That team was really good and this year’s team is similar to that one,” Reynolds said. “We have good senior leadership and the younger guys are also playing well.”
One of the current senior leaders is Jake Harden, a 6-foot, 210-pound guard and middle linebacker who is a semifinalist for the Mr. Football Lineman of the Year in Class 2A.
“I was incredibly surprised, to say the least,” Harden said about the announcement he had made the final four in the Mr. Football balloting. “I couldn’t have done it without my defensive line and the other linebackers helping me out.
“I think I elevated my play last week (in a 41-0 blowout against Eagleville in the Bucs’ playoff opener. “Once you get into the playoffs, football takes on a different tone. The seniors are trying to lead our team in the best way we can.”
Harden’s main concern Friday is Tyner’s big offensive line.
“They are big up front and it’s going to be a tough game,” Harden said. “We have to play a very good game to beat them, but I know our guys will come ready to play and give it all we’ve got.”
Harden, an all-state pick in 2014, is the team’s third-leading tackler (93.5) this season behind Will Watkins (107.5) and Kohl Henke (84.5). He has 79 solo stops, four sacks, nine tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble.
The Rams will have to account for Harden all night long.
“On offense and defense, he’s a student of the game,” Reynolds said of Harden. “He plays hard, tackles well in space and is probably our best blocker on the offensive line. Jake graded out over 89 percent most of the year, which means nine of 10 times he is doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s huge.”
Reynolds has taken note of the Rams’ late-season surge and agrees with Harden that Tyner’s big offensive linemen are just one of the challenges the Bucs face in trying to add a second win over Tyner this season.
“Those linemen present a problem,” he said. “They have athletes than can make plays and they’ve been running a lot lately. They’re giving the ball to (Spralls) and he’s probably their best player. Defensively, they get after you by sending players off the corners and overall they’re fast on that side of the ball.”
TSSAA Football Playoff Schedule
Chattanooga Area Schools
All Games Start at 7 p.m. Local Time
Fayetteville (9-2) at South Pittsburg (8-3)
Tyner (8-3) at Boyd-Buchanan (11-0)
Marion County (10-1) at Forrest (10-1)
Chattanooga Christian (8-3) at East Ridge (11-0)
Notre Dame (8-3) at Upperman (9-2)
East Hamilton (7-4) at Stone Memorial (11-0)
Rhea County (8-3) at Farragut (10-1)
Oak Ridge (10-1) at Ooltewah (9-2)
Baylor (8-2) at Memphis University School (7-3)
McCallie (5-5) at Montgomery Bell Academy (9-1)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)