High school football: Hilltoppers still far from elite

Douglas Fritz • Nov 17, 2013 at 11:02 AM

It is difficult to wrap the 2013 high school football season into one neat little package.

On one hand, there were some really impressive performances for Tri-Cities area teams. On the other hand, once again this end of the state was not in the title-game conversation.

Yes, Northeast Tennessee is still alive, and its hopes are in the steady hands of Greeneville. But north of the Greene Devils, it’s still the same waiting game that has been played since the TSSAA began its statewide playoff series in 1976.

On the positive side of things, Science Hill finally rose from the Dobyns-Bennett ashes and conquered its longtime tormenter. Trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter and the Indians in possession of the ball and momentum, it looked like The Streak would stretch to 20 games.

The Hilltoppers came back with a vengeance, and claimed victory for the first time since 1994. When they followed up with a resounding 56-42 win over Knox Farragut in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs, it just added a little spice to the victory over D-B.

A win over Sevier County would have made it a memorable season — win or lose to Maryville in the quarterfinals. But when the Hilltoppers crashed with an enormous thud against the Smoky Bears — trailing 63-7 at one point — it was yet another playoff wipeout in a long list.

Science Hill took it down to the wire against Oak Ridge last year, but that was a firstround loss for a 9-1 team. Previous recent exits were by margins of 38 points (Maryville, 2011), 27 (Maryville, 2010), 21 (Farragut, 2008), 24 (Ooltewah, 2006), 20 (Oak Ridge, 2005), 27 (McMinn County, 2003), 18 (McMinn County, 2001), 36 (D-B, 1998).

All of those were first- or second-round losses, and the setback against Sevier County was the second-biggest playoff loss in school history — exceeded only by the 50-0 defeat against Oak Ridge in 1979.

It was not a disappointing season for the Hilltoppers. The first Big Seven Conference championship in 19 years will mark this team with a positive note.

Unfortunately, the loss to Sevier County and the blowout in the regular season against Murfreesboro Siegel — which exited the postseason Friday on the wrong end of a 35-0 decision against Murfreesboro Oakland — show there is still quite a gap between Science Hill and the state’s big dogs.

More proof of a gap stands in the fact Sevier County lost 55-6 to Maryville in the regular season. If the Smoky Bears get blown away again by the Rebels, where does that put Science Hill in relation to the state’s best?

This was a season the ’Toppers needed to state their case. Instead, they were convicted of facing a bigger mountain than was previously considered.

As for Elizabethton, it’s a similar story in some respects. The Cyclones can’t hang their heads after a 9-1 regular season that was “a half-yard away” from perfection, as head coach Shawn Witten said.

Elizabethton won the Three Rivers Conference championship, beating a team that was favored to capture the title with a thrilling late-fourth-quarter drive for a 28-27 win. Then the Cyclones took care of business in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs against a scrappy Huntsville Scott team.

Against Greeneville, the Cyclones were overmatched and lost 49-20. Athlete for athlete, football player for football player, Greeneville simply had more and used them well.

One thing the Cyclones can take heart in is the possibility they lost to the state champion once again. That has happened three times in the last four years with Alcoa ending Elizabethton’s season in 2009-10 before winning state titles. Last year, CAK stopped the Cyclones before winning its second straight title.

Greeneville was considered by some folks to be a big underdog against Knox Fulton, but with Sullivan South pushing the Falcons deep into the fourth quarter, there is reason to believe the Greene Devils have a serious shot.

South’s effort against Fulton should also give Elizabethton’s confidence a boost. Just two weeks before having possession and trailing by two points in the fourth quarter against Fulton, the Rebels were falling short in a last-gasp rally against the Cyclones. If Greeneville beats Fulton, Elizabethton can visualize itself as still being a step away — but it is a big step based on the outcome against the Greene Devils.

The Cyclones are the wild card for 2014. Fulton and Greeneville both graduate many of their key players, although each program is capable of a quick restock.

With running back Ethan Thomas back in the fold along with several other key players, the Cyclones could make some serious noise. But they will have to deal with South, and there’s reason to believe the Rebels will be looked at in quite a different light in 2014 because of what they did against Fulton.

With all of those impressive skill players returning, including quarterback Dylan Wieger, the Rebels only need to have a few more pieces fall into place and they could be in serious contention for reaching Cookeville.

Right now, that Week 10 encounter between Elizabethton and South is looking even bigger next year than it was this year.

As for the smaller classifications, it doesn’t look like Northeast Tennessee has much to offer on the statewide level in Class 3A. It could be a little different in Class 2A and Class 1A where Hampton and Cloudland, respectively, boasted some really good freshmen and sophomores and could get into the late-season mix.

Knoxville Grace Christian could remain as a stumbling block for Hampton, with Coalfield and South Pittsburg posing perennial deterrents for the Highlanders.

So 2013 passed with the Tri-Cities area failing for the 38th straight season to produce a state championship. Will the streak end in 2014? Time to get in the weight room and find out.

Douglas Fritz is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at dfritz@johnsoncitypress.com.

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