Cherokees punch ticket to Cookeville

Jonathan Herrmann

Cheers erupted from the visitor sideline as time ticked in the final seconds of the fourth quarter Friday night at South Pittsburg High School as the Greenback Cherokees punched their ticket to the 1A state championship game for the second year in a row.

“Coach (Greg) Ryan preaches all year, just keep playing,” Brent Kilpatrick, Greenback co-head coach, said. “Just play the next play. We’re going to make mistakes, other teams are going to make some plays, but we’re just going to keep playing our game and we’re going to keep fighting. They did that tonight. It took us a little while to get used to their overall speed I think, the speed of the game. It’s hard to replicate in practice.”

For the second week in a row, Greenback fell into an early 14-0 hole, and for the second week in a row, the Cherokees dug themselves out of that hole, winning 42-27.
“I think last week’s game against Coalfield said so much about how we fought, and … it really got us battle tested for this game,” Hunter Willis, senior quarterback, said. “No matter what happened we were going to come back and win this ballgame. Just our coaches and the places that they put us in to be successful and everything. I mean the coaching staff is the big difference in the game tonight.”
Down 14-0 and looking for a spark, the Cherokees, facing a fourth down and 12 at the South Pittsburg 37, ran a trick play to pick up not just a first down, but a touchdown.
The play started with a pitch to Kayne Roberts out to the left side. Roberts handed to Tylor Jones on a reverse, and Jones made a pitch back to Willis.
Willis then let a pass fly down field to Breeden Gilbert.
“It’s a play coach Ryan has been working on the last couple of weeks,” Kilpatrick said. “It was the perfect time to call it and it was well executed.”
Gilbert was covered one-on-one on the pass and was able to out jump the defensive back for the catch before turning and running to the end zone.
“He was turned looking at me and he didn’t turn around until the last second,” Gilbert said. “I just saw my advantage. I just had to get around him and catch the ball. He didn’t know where I was going from there, so I just turned around and got to the end zone.”
After a South Pittsburg three-and-out, the Cherokees marched down field again, scoring on an 8-7ard run by Gilbert.
“He’s a hard runner,” Willis said. “He’s only a sophomore too, and he weighs, I don’t know, 230. He runs hard and he drags people all over the place. I wish I could run like that. He does a good job and he’s a good lead blocker. He’s not selfish. He blocks when he needs to block and he gets the ball when he gets the ball.”
After a long kick return, South Pittsburg took their lead back, 21-14. Greenback got a big return of their own with Gilbert fielding the ball at the Cherokees' 21 and picking up 47 yards.
Four plays later Roberts rushed in from one yard out to tie the game 21-21.
Another South Pittsburg three-and-out followed, and Greenback marched 73 yards on eight plays to take a 28-21 lead into halftime on Roberts' second run of the game.
“After we finally realized if we just hit them in the mouth like we have everybody else all year, we figured out we could run it down their throats like we do every single game,” Gilbert said.
The Cherokees opened the second half with another long return, this time from Roberts as he pushed the ball just short of the 50.
Greenback drove to the South Pittsburg seven where they faced a fourth down, six yards short of a first.
Willis rolled out on a boot leg to his left on fourth down before reversing field, picking up two key blocks, and finding Tavin Kilpatrick open in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 35-21 lead.
That score held for the remainder of the third quarter as Sotuh Pittsburg's next two drives ended with an interception and a turnover on downs.
“Coach (Brian) Hanley and coach Ryan made some really good adjustments against what they were trying to do, and I think our kids settled down,” Brent Kilpatrick said. “Once they knew what to expect, and again getting used to their team speed and the way they were running things. South Pitt has a good football team. I think we came out tonight and did what we’ve done all year, and that’s be physical.”
Greenback had a chance to put the game away early in the fourth quarter but a fumble set up a South Pittsburg touchdown drive instead.
But Greenback quickly responded to the drive with on of their own as Roberts drove into the end zone for the third time, giving Greenback a 42-27 lead and slamming the door on the Pirates and solidified Greenback's return trip to Cookeville.
“The big thing is, we wanted to get back to Cookeville — that’s what the goal is for the kids — but it’s not just to get back to Cookeville,” Brent Kilpatrick said. “We didn’t feel we played very well last year. Obviously Nashville Christian had a good team, but we didn’t feel we played our best football. We want to go back down to Cookeville and play our best football game.”
The trip will marks Greenback's second in as many years.
“One state championship game is good enough, but we got two in a row,” Willis said. “That’s never been done before (at Greenback). The resiliency that we have on this team, and the team work and team unity that we have — I mean we had some people get hurt tonight and we had some big guys step in, and an eighth grader, even and eighth grader played tonight, and they just came in like they’d been playing the whole game. They just stepped up and did a good job.”
Greenback will take on Dresden in the state title game. Kick off is scheduled for 11 a.m. central standard time Friday at Tennessee Tech University.
“Since we’ve been there, we know what’s coming,” Gilbert said. “We know if they’re at state they’re going to be a mighty fine team. We’re not going to overlook them, that’s for sure, like we did last year. We didn’t think they were as good as they were and we came out kind of flat. This year we’re definitely going to come out ready to play.”