A week after its meltdown in Kingsport, many wonder how Science Hill will react in the Atomic City.
The Hilltoppers (9-1) open the TSSAA Class 6A playoffs in Oak Ridge (9-1) tonight at 7 in a first-round game that looks more like a second- or third-round matchup.
The Wildcats’ lone loss was 38-23 against perennial power Maryville (10-0). Coach Stacy Carter’s Hilltoppers lost 37-34 last week at Dobyns-Bennett (10-0) after Chad Diminick’s 35-yard field goal with 17 seconds left completed a rally from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
“It’s obviously an incredible first-round matchup,” Oak Ridge coach Scott Blade said. “That’s an understatement. Coach Carter’s got his kids playing hard, and he’s got size, speed and athleticism, a lot of stuff maybe we haven’t faced ... probably since the Maryville game.”
It’s difficult to recharge emotionally in a week from a hard-fought rivalry loss like Science Hill experienced, and the Hilltoppers must take on a well-coached veteran team while doing so.
“We had a big talk … and we can still achieve every one of our goals if we keep winning,” Carter said. “It’s not like everything’s gone. I think the kids are still ready to play; I really do. They’re still having fun.”
Oak Ridge has improved steadily under fourth-year coach Scott Blade, who won a 4A state championship at Hillsboro in 2008 — 10-7 against Maryville while winning the nation’s longest winning streak — before taking over an Oak Ridge team which went 4-6 that season. The Wildcats went 7-4 in Blade’s first year, concluded a 9-5 season with a semifinal loss to Maryville in 2010 and finished 9-4 last season.
The program’s progress has essentially mirrored that of quarterback Rian Hall, a who’s in his first season as a full-time quarterback after staring the previous three seasons in the secondary and at slot receiver and running back. Hall has completed 62.5 percent of his passes (105-168) for 1,373 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions, and has averaged 6.0 yards per carry while rushing for 742 yards and 12 TDs.
“I’ve been doing this a while, and I’ve never had a guy that I brought up as a freshman,” Blade said. “He’s done a good job of running the offense and taking what the defense gives us, so to speak.”
Matt Moore has rushed for 793 yards (8.3 yards per carry) and 13 TDs, and Elliot Normand has 452 yards rushing and seven TDs on the ground.
“Matt Moore’s done a great job of breaking them when we need to,” Blade said. “He’s pretty fast. I know Science Hill’s got some speed. Down here he’s faster than most. Not quite as fast as those kids from Dobyns-Bennett, but a kid that can absolutely open it up on you.”
Normand, a three-year starter at linebacker, has 94 tackles.
“Elliott’s our leading tackler for the third year in a row and the heart and soul on defense,” Blade said.
Ethan Grumski has 15 sacks. Oak Ridge had 17 as a team in 2011.
Of course, Blade is concerned about trying to sack Science Hill’s Reed Hayes, who’s passed for 30 TDs and seven interceptions. Hayes has passed for 2,120 yards and rushed for 631 yards and nine TDs.
“I especially like the quarterback,” Blade said. “I like his ability to throw on the run and his ability to avoid a rush and make things happen with his feet and his arm.”
Will Adams has rushed for 686 yards and 10 TDs, both team highs, for the Hilltoppers. The Bearden offense also has balance.
“Hall’s a good dual threat,” Carter said, “and their running back is very talented.”
Hayes isn’t concerned about the Hilltoppers being deflated after the D-B game.
“We just want to ... move on from how we got beat last Friday,” Hayes said. “We’re not cashing in the season. ... Nobody’s dwelling on that loss.”
Hayes said having played Greeneville should be good preparation for the Oak Ridge defense.
“They run a 4-4 and a lot of Cover 3,” Hayes said.
Science Hill won its first playoff game since 2001 last season. The ’Toppers and Wildcats each expected to take another step at the beginning of the season, but something’s got to give.
“We are senior heavy ... so it’s a team with a lot of experience and guys that’ve been in the playoffs and played those big games against the Maryvilles of the world and the Riverdales of the world,” Blade said. “In that respect, we’re fortunate. But we know this is gonna be the best game we’ve had since Maryville.”
Bearden (8-2) at Dobyns-Bennett (10-0) — Dobyns-Bennett can exorcise one of its recent postseason demons. The Bulldogs defeated the Indians 41-35 in overtime at Kingsport in a second-round game two years ago.
Bearden linebacker Griffin DeLong is the son of former Tennessee player Keith DeLong and grandson of Volunteers All-America Steve DeLong (1963-64), and cornerback Isaiah McDaniel’s father, Terry, played at UT and in the NFL.
D-B coach Graham Clark is also high on Bulldogs linebacker Kole Matherly and cornerback Christian Robinson, as well as Bearden’s physical, ball-control offense that’s engineered by quarterback Nicky Frizen.
The Bulldogs, who lost 21-3 to Maryville (the score was 14-3 late) and 24-17 to Knox West, will have their hands full — or empty — trying to tackle swift and shifty D-B quarterback Malik Foreman, who committed to Vanderbilt at the beginning of the week.
D-B went 64-16 the previous seven seasons, but is 3-7 in the playoffs during that span and hasn’t been beyond the second round of the playoffs since 2004.