Twenty years ago, Elizabethton football took on a new identity.
And the player who was the cornerstone of the program’s upward direction, Shawn Witten, is now the Cyclones’ head coach as the building work continues.
“It becomes a process,” Witten said. “It’s not a thing that happens overnight. You’ve got to constantly work.”
The Playoff Era
When the TSSAA began a statewide playoff system in 1969, the Cyclones were almost immediately in the mix for postseason consideration.
Most notable was the 1972 squad that beat everybody on its schedule — with the exception of defending state champion Tennessee High, which would go on to win its second-straight title and eventually earn a mythical national championship.
Elizabethton lost to the Vikings 21-15. To this day, some who participated in that game will say the Cyclones should have won — pointing to a controversial penalty that erased a go-ahead punt return for a touchdown.
Other playoff journeys
A 9-1 regular season in 1977 landed a playoff berth for Elizabethton, but Cocke County turned the Cyclones back in a 12-0 decision.
The Cyclones were also tough in 1980, finishing 9-1 in the regular season before losing to Morristown West, 37-21, in the opening round of the playoffs.
Elizabethton matched that finish in 1982, but Jefferson County delivered a 28-0 setback to the Cyclones in the playoffs. The powerful Patriots used the same margin of victory to eliminate the Cyclones in 1985.
From 1992-95, the Cyclones reached the playoffs each year. In 1994, they came away with their first postseason win, a 21-18 win over Cocke County that was followed by a 49-21 loss to Cleveland.
In 1996, the Cyclones won nine straight games after a season-opening loss to Cocke County. However, Knox Powell sent the Cyclones packing with a 27-13 decision in the opening round of the playoffs.
With junior Shawn Witten already established as one of Northeast Tennessee’s best players, and younger brother Jason coming into his own as a sophomore, the Cyclones had high hopes for the 1997 season. Shawn became a quarterback, but he was a jack of all trades — mastering them all for four seasons. Long before his days as a potential NFL Hall of Fame tight end, Jason was causing unsolvable problems for opposing offenses as a nightmare linebacker.
There were plenty of other standouts: Running backs Ryan Presnell, Demitrius Turner and Lee Freeman, receiver Andy Loving, defensive lineman Justin Fair, place-kicker Justin Smith, and an offensive line that included standouts like Fair, Jeremy King and Jamie Norris.
Expectations were high for success in 1997, and perhaps even a few of the Cyclones’ faithful dared to dream about making a run all the way.
However, reality reared its ugly head in Week 1. The Cyclones took on what turned out to be a fairly average Science Hill team. The Hilltoppers would finish the season with a record of 5-5 and miss the playoffs. But Science Hill took it to the Cyclones, pounding them in a 25-10 decision to erase the bitter taste of a Shawn Witten-inspired 33-29 Cyclones’ win the year before.
Undeterred, the Cyclones scored 35 or more points in each of their next four games — blowout wins over Sullivan East, Cocke County, Daniel Boone and Greeneville.
Week 6 rolled around, and the Cyclones couldn’t finish off Tennessee High with the Vikings earning a 15-13 decision. Like Science Hill, it was a so-so year for the Vikings, as they finished 6-5 after an opening-round playoff loss.
The next week, Elizabethton held off Cherokee in a 48-32 affair. That was followed by easy wins over Sullivan Central (41-14), Morristown West (35-7) and Sullivan South (48-20).
The Cyclones were in the Class 4A playoffs, away from Class 5A teams like Science Hill. Things started rather nicely as Elizabethton earned its second easy win of the season against Greeneville, a 49-16 decision.
It was a much different story in the second round as the Cyclones needed a 49-yard touchdown run from Turner with 2:59 left in the game to earn a tough 12-7 road victory over Morristown East.
That victory put the Cyclones in uncharted territory: the state quarterfinals. Staring back at them was a Cocke County team that struggled through a 3-7 regular season, but managed to pull off a pair of playoff upsets. The Fighting Cocks stunned Tennessee High 8-7 in the first round, and then held off Daniel Boone, 29-25.
In the role of road favorite, the Cyclones didn’t flinch and earned a 29-6 victory.
Now things were getting really interesting. Elizabethton was one win away from playing for a state championship.
Maryville before it was Maryville
The Rebels had quite a tradition, but most of it came from the 1970s when head coach Ted Wilson guided the Rebels to a trio of state titles (1970, 1976 and 1978).
After Wilson left Maryville for Dobyns-Bennett, the Rebels’ program stayed strong for a few years under Don Story, but didn’t get back to the title game. And from 1988 (under coach Emory Hale) through 1996, the Rebels didn’t make a lot of statewide noise and won just one playoff game. In fact, the 1996 Rebels finished with a record of 5-5.
But 1997 was a different story. In his fifth season, Tim Hammontree had the Rebels rolling with five straight wins before getting thumped by Anderson County. Maryville learned well from that loss, and ripped off seven straight wins to earn a shot to travel to Elizabethton to face the Cyclones in the semifinals.
It was a big challenge, and the game swung in the Rebels’ favor in a major way in the final minute of the first half. After Elizabethton tied the score at 14-14 with 58 seconds left before halftime, Maryville quarterback Toki McCray guided his team on a five-play, 80-yard, heartbreaker of a drive. McCray hit Kimani Dean with a 38-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the first half. The Rebels led 21-14, and then scored on the first drive of the second half.
The Cyclones never recovered in a 42-21 loss.
Still, it was the beginning of a new era for the Cyclones and head coach Dave Rider. It helped produce a playoff-threat attitude that has stayed with the program to this day.
“That really started our program,” Shawn Witten said. “It wasn’t so much getting to that moment, but the way we played. We played pretty good. We hung in there for a while. It really showed us what it takes to get there. We really worked hard, and the next year we got back to that same spot.”
The Cyclones reached the semifinals again in 1998. Playing at Maryville, Elizabethton had the Rebels on the ropes. But a late fourth-quarter touchdown gave the Rebels a 20-16 victory en route to a state championship.
“The more times you get there, the better prepared you’re going to be,” Witten said. “It gives you expectations and something to shoot for.”
In 1999 the Cyclones made their third straight semifinals appearance, losing a 20-17 overtime heartbreaker to Knox Central.
Witten helped restore the playoff runs when he returned as coach, guiding the Cyclones to the semifinals in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
“In a lot of those situations, it becomes a mentality,” Witten said of the Cyclones’ six trips to the state semifinals. “It’s the toughness and physicality to get there, and the way you play when you get there. The teams you play — the Maryvilles, the Alcoas, the Greenevilles — those are really physical football games. It really makes you, the way you develop your program in the offseason.”