The Tennessee Silverbacks are on the verge of a trifecta.
Twice, the Silverbacks have been cited by the Governor of Tennessee for being the state’s only independent high school football program. Soon, they will be honored a third time for the junior varsity team winning the Pioneer Football League title.
With the rest of PFL teams based in the Carolinas, it makes the Silverbacks JV squad the first Tennessee team to win an interstate championship.
Bill Bledsoe, the team’s general manager and head coach, believes has seen the program grow from kids learning the game to real potential.
“We used to focus on just getting guys to play together as a team,” Bledsoe said. “Now we have some guys with real talent so we’re getting them more in certain positions. I would be hard pressed next year to say we would do anything less on the varsity than what we’ve done with the jv.”
Not bad for a football program started just a few years ago to compete in the local youth league. With Providence Academy and home-schooled kids making up the majority of the team, the next goal is for the varsity to play one of the area’s Class A public school teams. Under Pioneer League rules, a loss to a Cloudland, Unaka or North Greene could hurt the SIlverbacks’ playoff chances, but it is a chance they’re willing to take.
“It has to be the next step,” Silverbacks head coach and general manager Bill Bledsoe said. “For me, I don’t care about how it plays on our schedule, I want the boys to play on that level. The goal has always been for the boys who founded the team to have a chance to play a TSSAA team.”
It might seem strange after a season when the varsity struggled to a 2-11 record, but there is hope with the junior varsity team going 11-1, including a 22-14 victory over the Carolina Crusaders for the PFL championship.
Several of the JV players will move up next season. It includes quarterback Jacolby Darr and running back Caleb Sprouse who combined for two touchdown passes in the championship game. There is also running back Nathan West, who scored on a 14-yard touchdown run and tight end Aaron Lewis who caught 10 passes including a couple to put his team in scoring position.
With such a proficient offense, the junior varsity team outscored its opponents by an average of 38-16 over the season.
To play a public school, however, there are other obstacles besides the on-field performance. Issues such as scheduling have to be worked out, although recent rule changes have made playing a public school a possibility.
“Two years ago, the TSSAA allowed home school programs to start playing public school programs as long as the coaches were in agreement whether it was a scrimmage or whatever,” Bledsoe said. “ Cloudland has already talked to us about playing a game so that’s been the dream. The thing about it is we follow all the TSSAA rules, and when we play in the 7-on-7 leagues in the summer, we’re able to hold our own with the TSSAA programs.”
Other rule changes allowed home-schooled kids to try out for high school teams. While there was some concern it might hurt the Silverbacks program, Bledsoe said it didn’t have any impact, that the boys who had been with the program stuck with the program.
Counting both teams, the Silverbacks now have 55 players on the rosters, as many as several of the pubilc school programs.
They include Greyson Bledsoe and Jonathan Prieto who lead the varsity team in a two-quarterback system. There is also wide receiver Neth Gardner, a quick learner who earned All-Conference in his first year playing football.
Other standouts from this past season included All-Conference running back Andrew Havens and senior center Joseph Pugh.
The Silverbacks also boasted talent on the other side of the ball, particularly at linebacker where Bledsoe called sophomore Isaac Richardson the toughest linebacker you will ever see.
Often in a 3-3 or a 4-3 set, Richardson was joined by fellow linebackers Zachary Orren and Rick Bivens.
While they ran a more traditional offense this season than years past, there is very little convention when it comes to the Silverbacks. The program originally used a Washington County farm as its practice field where round hay bales served the purpose of blocking sleds. Now, the team has moved its practices to a soccer field near Warriors Path State Park, although the actual football stadium at Dobyns-Bennett was booked for home games.
Perhaps, the most unconventional thing about the Silverbacks is their attitude. In a year, which the losses easily outnumbered the wins, Bledsoe said the players were always ready to tackle the next challenge.
“Of all the teams I’ve coached, this one had the most humility,” Bledsoe said. “They would lose a game, but on Monday, they would be back at practice ready to go. They perservered from a character standpoint.”