Sometimes the cream does rise to the top.
Elizabethton and Sullivan North staged a dramatic game in Week 4, and both teams battled their way back to a rematch.
The Cyclones rudely dismissed Gatlinburg-Pittman 38-0 while the Raiders were equally disdainful hosts in a 35-7 win over West Greene. Both were second-round contests in the TSSAA Class 3A football playoffs Friday night.
So the stage is set for a state quarterfinal showdown this week at Rider Field in Elizabethton.
“People should be proud of both teams,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “One is 11-1 and one is 10-2, and sometimes it gets down to the two best teams.”
The first battle was a 23-21 decision that certainly remained in doubt throughout the second half.
“I think it was a game that could have gone either way,” said Witten.
It looked like Elizabethton had the upper hand as it built a 14-0 halftime lead. However, North’s Kairi Thompson returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown, and it was “game on.”
North eventually cut the Cyclones’ lead to 20-19 with a touchdown, and decided to go for a 2-point conversion with 3:54 left in the game. It was successful, and the Cyclones were backed into a corner.
However, Elizabethton got an 80-yard kickoff return from Ethan Thomas, and Logan Birchfield’s 24-yard field goal with 1:29 left on the clock proved to be the difference.
“Without Ethan’s kickoff return, I don’t know if we would have won,” said Witten.
Throughout the season, the Cyclones have become a ground-and-pound machine. They have rushed for a school-record 3,689 yards. However, Sullivan North is equally ground oriented with 3,735 yards rushing.
Elizabethton’s confidence has grown since the win over North, and it was very evident against Pittman.
The Highlanders entered with an impressive offense, but the Cyclones shut them down. Elizabethton expected to be able to move the football on the ground against Pittman, but a shutout probably wasn’t in the minds of many people.
Elizabethton constantly beat Pittman at the line of scrimmage, and eventually produced 11 plays of no gain or lost yardage. They held Pittman to 25 yards rushing on 25 carries, and even without the big loss on a bad shotgun snap it was 39 yards on 24 carries.
The Cyclones’ defense has been underrated all season. Included on the resume was holding Science Hill to 27 points — a little more than half of its season average.
Confidence has been the key for the defense. The Cyclones’ defenders just play hard, fast and strong.
“We try to bring intensity and physicality every game,” said senior linebacker Luke Blanton.
One thing the Cyclones didn’t do well against Pittman was make plays on balls in the air. However, that is something Elizabethton has done well this season with 13 interceptions in 12 games.
A showdown awaits. A trip to the state semifinals is on the line.
Greeneville’s run of three straight appearances in the Class 4A state title game came to a convincing end as Knox Fulton humbled the Greene Devils 42-14.
In any high school sport, it’s tough to remain at a championship level for four years. It’s tough to keep getting that level of talent into the program after a great class passes through.
Still, head coach Caine Ballard had Greeneville competing at a high level, and an 8-4 season is still a good finish.