Sullivan South became a bigger fish at the same time the pond got smaller.
If the Rebels follow a trend, they will be tough to handle in most sports for at least the next couple of seasons.
Because of smaller enrollment, South moved from the Class AAA world inhabited by the likes of Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett to the Class AA ranks, where smaller schools roam. The Rebels’ first seasons in the new digs begin this fall.
It should make a big impact right off the bat in sports like golf, girls soccer and volleyball. But most eyes are on football, where the Rebels basically traded the Indians and Hilltoppers for Elizabethton and Sullivan North in terms of postseason implications and the Three Rivers Conference title chase.
If the Rebels reach the playoffs, Class 4A might not be much more of a bargain than their previous 5A home. That’s because teams like Greeneville, Knox Fulton, Knox Catholic and the Cyclones could present challenges in the postseason bracket.
As far as the regular season goes, most Three Rivers teams are welcoming the Rebels with open arms, at least until they have to play them.
“It’s great,” said Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten. “The old Mountain Lakes Conference was great, and we have our scheduling back to where we don’t have to play North Carolina teams. We picked up Tennessee High and David Crockett, so we’re playing most of the old Big Eight schools. South dropping down is like us in 2009. I’m sure they are getting excited about it.”
Elizabethton certainly got excited, reaching the state semifinals in its first football season as a Class AA team. The Cyclones returned to the semifinals in 2010, and made it again last season.
Traditionally Northeast Tennessee schools have done well across the board in the move from Class AAA to Class AA, including Unicoi County in the mid 1980s, Daniel Boone in the 1990s, Elizabethton in the early 2000s, and Sullivan East a few years ago.
Unicoi County is moving up as the Rebels moved down, at least for postseason purposes as the Blue Devils join Elizabethton, East and South in Class 4A. However, even the Blue Devils are upbeat about the arrival of South in the Three Rivers.
“When you get a quality team in your conference, it doesn’t do anything but elevate your play,” said Unicoi head coach Jerad Huskins. “I’m excited about them joining the league. And I’m sure South has excitement and something to look forward to. Look at the people they’ve been playing in the past: D-B, Science Hill and Tennessee High. However, there are no pushovers in our league. If you go to Mountain City and Happy Valley and think you’re just going to roll over them, you’re not going to do that. These teams take too much pride in what they do.”
Johnson County head coach Mike Atwood said his team is familiar with the Rebels.
“We were in the league with them for eight years in the old Mountain Lakes, and we always enjoyed playing them,” said Atwood. “We had a good relationship with South. They had a real strong sophomore class last year. It’s the nature of the beast that they feel they should win the conference. And confidence is a good thing in high school sports. If you feel like you can win, you’re ahead of the game.”
South opens its Three Rivers season in Week 2 against Happy Valley. The Rebels play Unicoi County in Week 4 and Sullivan East in Week 7. They close with North, Johnson County and Elizabethton.
Greeneville quarterback Zack Finchum has recovered nicely from a serious injury during the baseball season.
Finchum suffered a broken jaw when he was hit in face by a broken aluminum bat while pitching in a game at Cumberland Gap in April. He returned to the baseball field later in the season, helping the Greene Devils reach the Class AA sectional before losing to eventual state champion Pigeon Forge.
Showing the injury is a thing of the past, Finchum put up some big numbers during Greeneville’s first football scrimmage Friday against Morristown East. The junior completed 15 of 19 passes for 310 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 69 yards.
There have been a couple of coaching changes in basketball recently.
Cloudland turned over its boys’ program to Gary Harrison, who had been been an assistant under Brandon Carpenter for the past three seasons. Carpenter resigned earlier this summer to become an elementary school principal.
Harrison is a former Highlanders’ standout, and will inherit a program that has reached the Class A state tournament five times in the last eight seasons. He said he will continue to stress the defensive pressure that has been a hallmark of Cloudland’s success.
In another move, Sullivan South has turned over its girls basketball program to Torey Haile.
As for baseball, former Dobyns-Bennett standout Josh Warner has changed his coaching address. After leading Jefferson County to some very successful seasons, Warner will step down to the Class AA ranks by taking over at Gatlinburg-Pittman.