It took a quarter of a century, but Johnson County finally found a way to win a football playoff game.
“The players were excited,” said Longhorns' head coach Mike Atwood about his team's 23-20 win over Chuckey-Doak in the first round of the TSSAA Class 3A playoffs Friday night. “We had a good draw, and we told the boys all week we felt like we had a chance to win. They wanted it.
“We've only got five seniors, but it's a good group and they worked hard. I was happy for them.”
Saying it was a good draw was not a slap at the Black Knights. But Chuckey-Doak hasn't had the same postseason success as teams the Longhorns faced in their playoff history — which was loaded with traditional powers.
Only once had Johnson County won in the postseason, a 21-17 victory over Knox Webb in 1988. After beating Webb, Alcoa ended the Longhorns' season with a 15-6 decision.
Prior to that, Johnson County lost to Gatlinburg-Pittman (28-0 in 1987), twice to Maryville (28-0 in 1982 and 18-0 in 1981), and to Church Hill (27-0 in 1978). Also, the 'Horns advanced to the second round in 1980, but that was because of a first-round bye. They lost to Knox Rule 16-0 in the second round.
Johnson County missed the playoffs from 1989-98. From 1999-2009, the Longhorns lost to Loudon, Austin-East (twice), Morristown West (three times), and Morristown East. Last year, Elizabethton sent the 'Horns packing.
So with previous opponents like that, Doak didn't seem like a mountain too tall.
“That's one thing we looked at,” said Atwood. “We made the playoffs before, but always felt like we had to play a perfect game to have a chance to win.
“This year we felt we could play our game, and didn't have to try to play perfect. It was big not having Elizabethton and Sullivan South in Class 3A. And with the tough schedule we played, we felt we would be ready (for Chuckey-Doak).”
This game came down to Doak attempting a field goal with five seconds left in the game, shooting for overtime. Alex Trussler blocked the attempt, giving Johnson County the win.
It was an ironic ending because Atwood said the biggest play of the game was Austin Kurtz's field goal in a similar situation before halftime. Johnson County completed a pass to Doak's 15-yard line, and called timeout with two seconds remaining.
“It's something we've been working on the last couple of weeks, getting a field goal at the end of the half or end of the game,” said Atwood. “The kids executed. Austin drilled it.”
The 32-yard kick put Johnson County ahead, 10-7. Kurtz won the place-kicking job after the season started.
“(Kurtz and Rico Ortega) were pretty even at the beginning of the year,” said Atwood. “Ortega is soccer style, which you figured you had to have. Austin is a straight-on kicker, and he really came on the last five or six games. He only missed one extra point, and made two or three field goals.”
Doak answered with a touchdown drive to start the second half, touching off a back-and-forth battle that wasn't settled until the end.
“I'm really proud of the way we came back,” said Atwood. “I'm really proud of that group of boys.”
Another key to the win was quarterback Warren Kerley, who was 12 of 20 passing for 145 yards.
“He had probably his best game of the year,” said Atwood. “And he had a big bootleg touchdown run on an option play.”
Doak got a nice effort from standout running back Tyler Coe, who had 198 yards on 29 carries. But like it had done in all of its victories this year, Johnson County won with a punishing ground game.
Patrick South led the way with 27 carries and 138 yards. Jordan Grubb supplied some important yardage late in the game.
“We've got two good tailbacks, and we try to keep them fresh,” said Atwood. “The offensive line has gotten better the last couple of weeks. Grubb plays defense, too, so he didn't get as many carries early in the season.”
South said before the season he was shooting for 1,500 yards rushing. Thanks to a strong finish, and the win over Doak, he will have a chance to get there. He will enter next week's game with 1,456 yards.
And that game will be against two-time defending Class 3A state champion Christian Academy of Knoxville. However, the Warriors are only 5-6 this season — but they have played a brutal schedule.
“We just need to run the ball and control the clock and keep their skill guys off the field,” said Atwood. “We feel like we've got a chance to win.
“We needed this win over Chuckey-Doak for the season and for the program. Now we feel like year in and year out we have a chance in the playoffs.”