Oh, what a difference a year can make.
Last fall, the Whitwell Tigers were undefeated in football as they won their first state title in a season that was memorable in a number of ways.
Fast forward to this season and the situation is totally different.
The Tigers had to replace a bunch of graduating seniors and they’re getting used to a new head coach. Undoubtedly, Whitwell will have another outstanding season, but it didn’t start off on the best foot Wednesday at East Ridge.
Facing a Pioneer team with exceptional speed at key skill positions, the Tigers were never really in this game.
It was a game of big plays as East Ridge scored on its second possession and never looked back as they turned a 32-0 halftime lead into a 38-8 victory.
“I think that final score surprises me more than anyone as I was expecting a dogfight from those guys,” said East Ridge coach Tim James after the non-district romp.
“I thought our defense played lights out and they scored twice, so that was a key as our linebacker play was outstanding. We are far from mistake-free football, but hats off to our kids as they rose to the occasion tonight.
“We had big plays on both sides of the ball, but our overall speed may have been the biggest difference. The sky’s the limit for these guys, but I’m just happy to be on the winning side tonight,” the veteran East Ridge coach added.
Travis Olinger served as an assistant coach at East Ridge for the last dozen years before being named the head coach at Whitwell. Brandon McElroy was also a Pioneer assistant who is now Whitwell’s offensive coordinator.
Those facts alone might have made Wednesday’s lopsided defeat even tougher to swallow.
“I guess I just took it too easy on my guys this week, so I’ll take the whole blame for this loss,” Olinger said moments after this one ended.
“Our recent practices have been too laid back and we just didn’t show up tonight. I told our guys what to expect and there were no surprises, but we just checked out mentally. I have no doubt that we are much better than we showed, but we didn’t have any answers for East Ridge,” he concluded.
The Pioneers didn’t do much with their first possession before punting. The East Ridge defense forced a Whitwell punt that got a nice roll before being downed on the East Ridge 7.
Keanu Johnson gained three yards on first down before breaking loose on a 90-yard run for the first touchdown with 5:03 left in the opening stanza.
It was 13-0 about 90 seconds later after Jalen Boykin intercepted a Thomas Ridge pass and raced 35 yards untouched for another East Ridge TD.
Tyi Mosley recovered a fumble on a punt that put East Ridge in great shape at the 28.
Johnson gained 25 yards on a reception from Cameron Sanders before Johnson scored his second TD on a run from the 8 with 10:47 left before halftime.
It was another quick strike on East Ridge’s next possession as Marquan Acklan went untouched for 60 yards and another TD as Caleb Serrato’s kick made it 26-0 with 7:46 left in the second.
Jamii Bowman concluded the first-half scoring with an 85-yard interception return as the difference was 32-0 at the break.
Boykin scored the final TD of the night for the Pioneers on the first play of the second half as he raced 63 yards for the score following a 19-yard kickoff return by Sanders.
Meanwhile, Whitwell was moving the ball on the ground.
The Tigers finally found the end zone with just over three minutes remaining when Jace Kilgore bulled over from the 3. The nine-play, 45-yard drive was set up by a fumble recovery by J.J. Headrick.
Brayden Condra recovered another East Ridge fumble on the next play, but the game ended before they could score again.
East Ridge finished the game with 259 total yards, including 234 on the ground.
Johnson had 100 yards rushing on five attempts while Boykin had 75 yards on two attempts and Acklin 60 yards on his only carry. Johnson also had the only reception for the Pioneers for 25 yards.
Whitwell countered with 226 total yards, including 212 on the ground.
Trenton Stockwell was the leader with 117 yards on 25 carries, including 99 yards on 18 trips in the first half. Cory Locklair and Ridge both had 31 yards while Kelby Holland had 21 yards on four trips.
The Tigers don’t have much time to recover as they travel to Pikeville on Saturday to face the Bledsoe County Warriors. East Ridge travels to Bledsoe County next Friday.
WHITWELL 0 0 0 8 -- 8
EAST RIDGE 13 19 6 0 -- 38
ER – Keanu Johnson 90 run (Caleb Serrato kick), 5:03 left in first;
ER – Jalen Boykin 35 interception return (kick failed), 3:24 left in first;
ER – Johnson 8 run (run failed), 10:47 left in second;
ER – Marquan Acklan 60 run (Serrato kick), 7:46 left in second;
ER – Jamii Bowman 85 interception return (kick failed), 4:35 left in second;
ER – Boykin 63 run (kick failed), 11:43 left in third;
WHIT – Jace Kilgore 3 run (Thomas Ridge run), 3:11 left in fourth.
STATS WHITWELL EAST RIDGE
First Downs 13 6
Rushes-Yards 46-212 18-234
Passing Yards 14 25
Passes Att-Comp-Int 2-13-3 1-2-0
Total Yards 226 259
Penalties-Yards 4-30 3-15
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 2-2
Punts-Average 4-32.0 3-27.0
WHITWELL RUSHING: Trenton Stockwell 25 for 117; Thomas Ridge 6 for 31; Cory Locklair 7 for 31; Kelby Holland 4 for 21.
EAST RIDGE RUSHING: Keanu Johnson 6 for 100; Jalen Boykin 2 for 75; Marquan Acklan 1 for 60.
WHITWELL RECEIVING: Kelby Holland 1 for 8; Jacob Roberts 1 for 6.
EAST RIDGE RECEIVING: Keanu Johnson 1 for 25.
WHITWELL PASSING: Thomas Ridge 2 for 13 for 14 yards with 3 interceptions.
EAST RIDGE PASSING: Cameron Sanders 1 for 1 for 25 yards.
WHITWELL FUMBLES: J.J. Headrick 1, Brayden Condra 1.
EAST RIDGE FUMBLES: Tyi Mosley 1.
WHITWELL INTERCEPTIONS: None.
EAST RIDGE INTERCEPTIONS: Jaylen Boykin 1, Jamii Bowman 1, Marquan Acklan 1.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)