Cyclones' win means they're knocking at the door again

Douglas Fritz • Nov 23, 2019 at 5:18 PM

Elizabethton’s win over Greeneville on Friday night came just four days before the 20th anniversary of a heartbreaking outcome for the Cyclones.

And the victory means Elizabethton will have its best chance to reach the football state title game since that day of Nov. 26, 1999.

Shawn Witten wasn’t coaching the Cyclones back then. He wasn’t playing for them, either. However, he was doing his level best to get to Brown-Childress Stadium before the Cyclones were finished.

His brother, Jason, and former teammates were playing Knox Central in the Class 4A state semifinals. But Shawn had college business at hand as Virginia Tech was trying to put the finishing touches on a perfect regular season and earn a berth in the 1999 National Championship game.

Tech’s game kicked off at 2:41 p.m. at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Michael Vick and the Hokies made fairly short work of Boston College, winning 38-14 — moving their record to 11-0 and securing their date with Florida State.

It was a warm November day with temperatures in the 50s, and Tech finished at 5:54 p.m. With the Cyclones scheduled for kickoff at 7 o’clock and a two-hour, 24-minute ride ahead, even an express trip to Elizabethton meant Witten was going to miss the bulk of the game.

Witten said he doesn’t remember exactly when he arrived in Elizabethton, but he was there to watch the Bobcats score an overtime touchdown for a 20-17 victory.

“I kind of stood in that corner, behind the end zone,” said Witten. “I was still invested, with what we had done the previous two years and playing Maryville in the semifinals, and how close we were.

“Jason’s group was ranked No. 1 at that time. They had home-field all the way through that year, too. I had a lot of friends and teammates out there still competing. They really had a shot to make it to the state championship game. They were really just one play away.”

It was especially tough for Shawn not only to watch Jason’s team fall short, but also for their grandfather.

“Jason being a senior, and grandad, that was his final game as a coach,” said Witten. “It was a tough way to go out. Just like the Maryville game the year before, basically getting beat on the last play in that one, too.”

Witten has coached the Cyclones back to the semifinals three times. Two were road trips to Alcoa (2009-10), where the Cyclones were simply overmatched. The other was in 2012 against Christian Academy of Knoxville, a loaded offensive team and a strong favorite. Elizabethton hung tough, but lost, 44-34.

This year, the Cyclones made it back to the semifinals by beating Greeneville 24-13 in the quarterfinals. The win was impressive as Elizabethton completely controlled the final three quarters after a quick start by the Greene Devils.

Witten said the importance of beating Greeneville wasn’t lost on him.

“The thing I came away with Friday night was this: When the game was over, Greeneville didn’t really know how to take it,” said Witten. “They hadn’t been in that situation. They weren’t accustomed to losing that game. They didn’t know what to do. And that gives you a lot of respect for them and more appreciation for the win. You have accomplished something. Greeneville just doesn’t go away that easy.”

Witten said the Greene Devils showed a lot of class and style in defeat.

“The appreciation they had for us, they knew we worked really hard to win that game,” said Witten.

Witten said it would be hard to imagine his team facing a more disciplined or fundamentally sound team.

“They are so well coached,” said Witten. “With their mindset, it is so difficult to beat them. You can’t surprise them. You can’t trick them. You just have to beat them. That’s what we did last night. We went right at them. We tried to match their intensity and physicality.”

Now the Cyclones move on to the final four. They will play host to Nolensville with a chance to seize a moment that has been frozen in time for 20 years.

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