With the advent of three classifications in 1976 and a true statewide playoff system, the chances seemed even greater.
But it would take a major change by the TSSAA to turn an uphill climb into a level playing field. The change — a complete split of public and private schools — took effect this year and the 50-50 field became one of dreams for Elizabethton as the Cyclones prepare this week for their first-ever TSSAA Class 4A state championship contest.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, Knoxville-area teams and private schools began to dig their claws into gold balls. There was a consistent stream of titles from Oak Ridge, Alcoa, Maryville, and way too many private-school teams.
When the TSSAA made a partial public-private split in the late 1990s, it still wasn’t enough. Area teams fell against powerful Knoxville squads or to the remnant of private schools still masquerading in the public ranks.
In 2009, the TSSAA moved to six classifications, but still didn’t solve the problem. And it wasn’t just this area that was suffering. Other pockets in the state grew weary of postseason roadblocks.
Finally, enough voices were heard and the TSSAA created a full public-private split. And the door was opened.
While Elizabethton didn’t benefit directly this season from the absence of private schools, the Cyclones entered the postseason knowing they wouldn’t be denied a trip to Cookeville by the likes of Christian Academy of Knoxville (2012, 2015) or Knoxville Catholic (2014).
And they finally found the right balance of classification after losing to Maryville (1997, 1998) and Alcoa (2009, 2010, 2016).
Saturday at 4 p.m. (EST) in the BlueCross Bowl, the Cyclones (14-0) will battle Springfield (11-3) for the Class 4A title.
HISTORY VS. HISTORY
Both Springfield and Elizabethton have earned one state championship. The Cyclones got their title in 1938, the only year of playoffs before the TSSAA took over the postseason in 1969. The Cyclones defeated Dobyns-Bennett (39-0) and Shelbyville (26-0) to reach the finals, where they stopped Jackson by a score of 26-14.
Springfield won in 1993, topping McMinn Central in the Class 3A finals. It was the first year of Tennessee’s switch to a five-classification system. The Yellow Jackets were state runner-up in 2017 to Greeneville, which scored seven unanswered touchdowns after a 7-7 first-quarter tie and won, 54-13.
Elizabethton has been to postseason play 29 times, including 12 years in a row. Springfield has made 21 playoff appearances, including six in a row.
Elizabethton has played teams with a combined record of 83-78, adding Greeneville and Sullivan South twice. Springfield’s opponents went a combined 87-68. The Yellow Jackets played eight teams with a winning record while the Cyclones played seven.
This is the second straight week Elizabethton will play a team that was blown out by Marshall County, which beat Nolensville 30-14 and Springfield, 42-12.
Elizabethton was the Region 1 champion while Springfield, located about 30 miles north of downtown Nashville, won the Region 5 title. Springfield lost a region game to Montgomery Central, which was 7-1 overall and could have won the title with wins in its last two games but lost both and missed the playoffs.
SPRINGFIELD PLAYERS TO WATCH
Springfield relies on a tough backfield duo of quarterback Kevontez Hudson and running back Kevontay White.
Hudson has thrown for 730 yards while rushing for 1,141. He has accounted for 26 touchdowns.
In the semifinal overtime win over Haywood, Hudson rushed 18 times for 146 yards — which included an 81-yard score.
White has racked up 1,110 yards rushing with 15 touchdowns. After being slowed by injuries early in the season, White has come on strong. In the quarterfinal overtime win over Hardin County, he rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown.
PICKS OF THE WEEK
Elizabethton 28, Springfield 20
The Cyclones have proven they can get things done on both sides of the ball, so they should be able to stay ahead of the curve no matter how the game flow develops.
Picks record: 12-4.
Ravenwood 28, Maryville 24
The Raptors were preseason favorites. No reason to jump ship now.
Knox Central 24, Summit 20
Looks like a second straight state title for the Bobcats with David Crockett wincing at the prospect of this finish. The Pioneers were extremely competitive in season-ending losses to the Bobcats in each of the last two years.
Alcoa 39, Pearl-Cohn 21
What the Tornadoes did to previously unbeaten Loudon in the semifinals last week — a 56-0 crushing — is astounding. There is no reason to think Alcoa won’t claim its fifth straight title.
Peabody 34, Meigs County 21
It has been 25 years and some tough losses since Meigs got this far, but Peabody was a consensus No. 1 much of the year and a second straight title seems likely.
Lake County 32, Greenback 29
It’s hard to pick against the Cherokees, their 12-game winning streak, and coach — ETSU Hall of Famer Greg Ryan. But Lake County’s Falcons have won every game this season and are a slight favorite.
Several area teams are off to good starts, but it’s early December and things haven’t taken shape.
On the boys’ side Science Hill is 6-0, but the Hilltoppers haven’t played a Class AAA team. Other quick starts of note are David Crockett (5-1), Sullivan South (5-1) and Happy Valley (3-0).
On the girls’ side, Dobyns-Bennett has roared out of the gates with a 7-0 mark. The Lady Indians have a nice win over Mountain Heritage, North Carolina, a team that went undefeated last season while winning the Class 2A state title.
Also getting out of the gates strong are David Crockett (5-1), Sullivan Central (6-0), Johnson County (4-1), Unicoi County (4-1) and Cloudland (4-1).