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When Sullivan South became a member of the Three Rivers Conference, the league’s football teams knew they were getting a challenger for the title.
With a history that included a pair of runs to the Class 5A state semifinals, the Rebels figured to be a bit of a bully in a smaller classification.
But there was one team, Elizabethton, with its own semifinal history. With three Class 3A visits to that round in four years, the Cyclones didn’t figure to just stand around and take punches from the Rebels.
After nine weeks of anticipation, a matchup nearly every one expected has come full tilt and center stage. The two teams will square off for the league title Friday night in Kingsport with kickoff set for 7:30.
It’s a different title-game opponent for Elizabethton after a few seasons of trading blows with Sullivan North.
“Sullivan North elevated its play and competed with us,” said Cyclones’ head coach Shawn Witten. “A team like South just makes everybody better. It’s a huge challenge having South in our conference. It made everybody work harder in the offseason.”
In some ways, Elizabethton saw a little bit of itself in its new league neighbor.
“I think there are a lot of similarities in the programs,” said Witten. “We both have good kids, good schools, both have competed at a high level, and both have been knocking at the door in the semifinals.”
South’s most recent postseason run came in 2009, when the Rebels lost to Columbia Central 24-0 in the Class 5A semifinals under head coach Stacy Carter. Sam Haynie took over the following season, and this year he has guided South to a 9-0 start.
Elizabethton has made recent treks within shouting distance of a title game. The Cyclones were turned away in the semifinals in 2009 and 2010 by Alcoa, and again in 2012 by Christian Academy of Knoxville.
“Both programs have been fortunate to advance in the playoffs, and the kids have done a great job,” said Witten. “Hopefully our kids understand we have played a lot of big games in the last four years, especially a lot of big playoff games. We’ve had senior leadership with seniors stepping up and making big plays. It really comes down to the seniors’ football team.”
When South joined the league, Elizabethton already had first-hand knowledge of what kind of challenge awaited. The Rebels beat the Cyclones 28-27 in a thriller at Rider Field in 2011, and Elizabethton returned the favor last year with a 21-7 decision in Kingsport.
Witten said he knows both teams have worked hard to get to this point, and this game is the payoff.
“It’s awesome because a lot of teams don’t get the same feeling of playing in a championship game,” said Witten. “As coaches you preach every play of every game until you are all the way through.”
Because of the importance of the game, any coach might worry about his players getting too jacked up. Haynie said he wants his kids to prepare like the other nine games.
“We want to keep things routine,” said Haynie. “We want to prepare for Elizabethton the same as we do for anybody else.
“But you can see a little more focus in their eyes. You can see they’re a little more hungry to play. It’s just exciting they created this opportunity for themselves. It’s two good teams, and both are going to be ready to play.”
Witten said the players have shown dedication to get to this point.
“It’s Week 10 and guys are tired and sore and playing through injuries,” said Witten. “They have rallied together, and understand the importance of a Week 10 game.”
This matchup goes beyond a title game. Both teams will make the playoffs, but the winner will get better seeding in an extremely tough quadrant.
“There is a lot at stake,” said Witten. “It’s the difference between playing at home or possibly going on the road. It’s an opportunity to set yourself up for a good run in the playoffs.”
Regardless of the outcome, Northeast Tennessee football fans come out as winners.
“I think it’s great,” said Witten. “It’s awesome regardless of who you root for. It speaks volumes about the type of kids in this area.”