The best high school football team in the region hones their craft on a dusty softball field during the week, running and tackling and passing and blocking while particles hazily float in the air. And then each Friday (and occasionally Saturday), the 17 boys that make up the Grace Baptist eight-man football team travel to far-flung schools in Nashville or Knoxville or Alabama and grind whoever they face into a similarly-fine powder.
After the Easter 2020 tornado destroyed their campus and stymied enrollment, coach Bob Ateca and the team looked for ways to keep the program afloat.
Their life-raft came in the form of eight-man football, which is played, as the name implies, with three less players (two linemen and one skill position are subtracted on offense). Ateca and his team spent the summer trying to figure out the “new” game.
“We did a lot of studying and talked to some guys who played eight-man, and studied a lot of coaches online on YouTube and saw how they were coaching it,” Ateca says. “There’s a lot of resources out there and we checked out everything, but we wanted to stay true to what we were doing before and needed to figure out how to marry the two together.”
“I think we were all a little bit anxious to see how things would turn out, because we really didn’t know anything about it,” quarterback Cooper Knecht says. “But to be honest, it’s been an amazing thing and we’ve been able to compete.”
To say Grace Baptist has “figured out” the game is a gross understatement - the Golden Eagles have laid waste to whoever has come before them. Morristown’s Bradley Knights were the first victim. Knecht led an offense that put up triple-digits (106-0) to open the season, and a few weeks later Grace traveled to Alabama to play the number one team in the NHST (National High School Tournament) eight-man rankings. Evangel Christian put up a good fight, but still lost 48-28.
“When we played Evangel out of Alabama, they were pretty physical and that was a tighter game,” Ateca says. “That was a tough game.”
The Golden Eagles are 5-0 and aside from Evangel's valiant effort, have won every game by at least 30 and have given up an average of 6.5 PPG in those other matchups. The NHST ranked Grace Baptist as the best team in the Southeast after their big win against Evangel, and bumped the loser down to number two.
Two-way lineman Bo Swanson leads the team with 9.5 tackles for loss, and says the tough weekday practices hone the team’s endurance. The Golden Knights already benefit from experience playing the more-physical 11-man game, which is quite-condensed compared to the wide-open eight-man game.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, we’d play a lot bigger schools and better teams, and it was an awesome challenge,” Swanson says. “When we came down to eight-man, it was a lot easier, even though we still have to work hard.”
Knecht agrees, and says “We’ve been able to physically overwhelm our opponents so far, and I think that’s had something to do with it. It’s given us a toughness others don’t have.”
Those high scores aren’t just a result of the Golden Eagles being able to maul their overmatched foes though. Grace Baptist’s team is a disciplined outfit who diligently ran drills during Tuesday’s practice. Each player is ready to play, and every single student-athlete on the roster gets that opportunity thanks to the small roster.
“It’s fun to see everyone get their chance. Everyone works hard and everybody gets to see it pay off on Friday nights,” Knecht says, and Swanson adds “I’m sure the younger guys are nervous, but I’m excited when they get out there and the camaraderie of the team is awesome.”
The athletic quarterback, who also plays defensive back, is the one who makes the offense tick, passing for 984 yards and 16 touchdowns while also rushing for 562 and 9 scores on the ground. The senior signal-caller is lightning-fast and had 237 yards rushing against Ezell-Harding earlier in the year.
“I really think (playing eight-man football) benefited all of us, because we’ve all had better seasons than we’ve ever had before and we’re only halfway through,” Knecht says. “It’s given us an opportunity to show what we really have, because we’re able to get outside the bigger guys.”
“He’s a senior and he checks us into the right plays. If he sees they have too many in the box, he knows he can throw the ball over the top, and he’s been throwing the ball really, really well this year,” Ateca says. “If we had a guy who could only throw or hand off back there, I think we’d struggle a little more. The element of having that extra guy they have to account for in the run game really changes things.”
The offense is far from the Knecht-show, and everyone brings something to the Golden Eagles’ undefeated season. One underrated contributor is halfback Tyler Parrott, who could break out after taking more of a supporting role behind receivers Cole Mason, Caleb Adams, and Mason Long.
“Tyler Parrot goes out there and works really hard, and he’s done really well the last few games, but hasn’t gotten that many yards,” Swanson says. “They’ve been loading the box, so we’ve been passing. I think we’re going to come out this next week and show them what he can do on the ground.”
Grace Baptist plays at “home” this Friday, home being Hunter Middle School for now while new facilities are built on Grace’s campus (which will hopefully be completed in 2022). Coach Ateca says local football fans should come out to watch the team, saying “It’s a great brand of football and a great opportunity to see a high-scoring game.”
With four games left on the schedule and the Eagles rolling, Grace Baptist is in a great position to make the playoffs, which take place in the Sunshine State. For Bo Swanson and the rest of Grace Baptist’s resilient bunch, the goal is simple.
“We’re ready, we want to impose our will, and we want to eventually go to Florida and win it all.”
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