South Pittsburg Pirates’ return to BlueCross Bowl has been strewn with obstacles
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SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. – It was somewhere along the 2,600-foot descent of Roan Mountain after last Friday’s spectacular semi-final victory that reality finally set in. Four hour bus rides through the freezing night and early morning air will give a person plenty of reflecting time.
The grueling 550 miles roundtrip the South Pittsburg football team traveled to take on Cloudland High School are pale compared to the months-long winding path that deviated far before finally returning to this week’s BlueCross Bowl.
“The resilience of these players is just amazing,” said Heath Grider, co-head coach and sporting director of the Pirates. “Not just to not give up when a lot of people would have done it, but to give us the coaches a chance to make changes and trust us and then persevere and do something that no one else outside of our locker room. never really thought possible.
“It’s a testament to this group of kids, staff and the community for all who stood up and took on many challenges that probably should have broken the team. Win or lose this game, these kids have already. proved a lot about their character. “
Friday BlueCross Bowl Schedule
At Finley Stadium
Class 3A: Alcoa (12-1) vs. East Nashville (10-4), 11 a.m.
Class 1A: South Pittsburg (10-2) vs. McKenzie (14-0), 3 p.m.
Class 5A: Powell (12-2) vs. Page (13-1), 7 p.m.
“WE WERE SHOCKED”
It’s a city with the same number of state championship trophies, five, because it has traffic lights. The Pirates – who are the only program in Tennessee, regardless of classification, to have contested a championship in the seven decades the TSSAA has had a playoff system – are back in the Class 1A title game. for a second consecutive season and the 13th time overall.
Over a period of 44 years, the program only had three head coaches, and each won at least one state title. But at a place defined by consistency, this year has been fraught with uncertainty as South Pittsburg overcame a long list of real stumbling blocks that began in March and continued throughout the season.
Soon after the resignation of the legendary Vic Grider, who won 81% of the matches he coached in his alma mater and was part of four state championships and three finalist teams, the real ambivalence began.
Two weeks later, the TSSAA placed the program on probation for two years because a recall club member provided unwarranted benefits by paying rent to a player’s family. That player, three-star senior defensive lineman Gio Davis – who has scholarship offers from Arizona State, Ole Miss and Tennessee, Arizona State among others – was initially declared ineligible for one calendar year.
However, the ruling did not make the Pirates ineligible for the playoffs, and seven days later the TSSAA granted the school’s hardship request, allowing Davis to play this season after all.
On the first weekend of April, South Pittsburg graduate Chris Jones, who had spent 25 of his 29 years coaching at the college and pro levels, was hired as the Pirates’ head coach. After just nine days of work, Jones announced that he was canceling the Bitter Streak with inter-county rival Marion County, then added to the 2020 Oakland, Nationally-Ranked and Class 6A Championship 2020 schedule, as well as North Jackson, a schedule. neighbor of Alabama 4A.
After opening the season with a 35-7 victory in Sequatchie County, the Pirates faced a three-week stretch in which games were called off due to a surge of COVID-19 across the count. Not only were the team not allowed to play, but they couldn’t even train or get together to train due to the school system’s coronavirus policy.
On Monday, the Pirates were scheduled to resume training for their first regional game against Whitwell, Jones stunned the community by announcing he was stepping down to accept an offer to return to the Canadian Football League, where he would join the Argonauts of Toronto. defensive staff.
“At first we were rocked,” said senior wide receiver Reginald Hunter. “But then all of us seniors got together and talked about how no one was going to feel sorry for us so we just had to keep working and go compete every Friday.
“We had a different mindset after everything that happened. We felt like we were being questioned, like we had a point to prove to everyone. That’s how we got it. played since. “
Needing to act quickly to stabilize a precarious situation, first-year principal Paige Hill sought to clean up the mess by turning to a pair of longtime assistants who had also worn the uniform as Pirates players. . Wes Stone, a member of the Jones team with 17 years of experience as an assistant, was appointed co-head coach with Heath Grider, who had worked as an assistant for 24 years but retired from the ‘training before the start of the school year to focus on his administrative duties as deputy director and sports director.
South Pittsburg Pirates find their way back to the BlueCross Bowl
SECURING THE VESSEL
If there’s a family as synonymous with pirate football as the Griders, it’s the Stones. Wes Stone’s father was on South Pittsburg’s first state title team in 1969. Wes was an offensive lineman on the 1994 championship team, his brother was linebacker on the 1999 title team and his three oldest sons have all played in state championship games.
Stone would be responsible for the day-to-day preparation of training and call the offense, while Grider, out of loyalty to the program his late father and older brother had built, agreed to oversee the defense.
“We were a fragile football team,” said Stone, whose training difficulties were made worse by working at the Washington Alternative Learning Center in Hamilton County, which means he’s 45 minutes away. road to train every day.
“We weren’t very good at the time, and it showed on the pitch,” Stone continued. “When all of this happened, there were a lot of people outside of our community who expected this program to fail. They thought we were in chaos, and I know some hoped we would fall.
“I took it as a personal challenge to make sure this program proves to all these people that South Pittsburg football is bigger than a person and that we aren’t going anywhere.”
As Stone adjusted to calling out a legacy attack he was unfamiliar with, and Grider completely overhauled the defense, the first three weeks after the Coaching turmoil were the toughest. The Pirates were only able to take a 14-0 halftime lead over Whitwell before finally walking away, then falling 20-0 down to North Jackson before a miraculous fourth-quarter rally was topped off with a 62-yard reverse pass in just 44 seconds. remaining for a one-point win.
As the staff built trust with the players, an identity formed and the Pirates began to gain confidence, scoring at least 42 points in six of seven games over a stretch. But in keeping with the tumultuous theme of the season, in the days leading up to the team’s second-round playoff, an assistant coach was fired from staff and another resigned.
In the first three rounds of the playoffs, the South Pittsburg defense allowed just 99 rushing yards, while Stone used everything from the appeal of a backhand that paid off with a critical conversion on the fourth down to the execution of surprise kicks that led to the momentum. touchdowns shifted in the quarterfinals and semi-finals.
With temperatures hovering in the mid-20s last Friday night at Roan Mountain, the Cloudland Highlanders looked set to put South Pittsburg’s season on ice, leading 14-0 late in the second quarter and eights in the fourth. But as they did throughout a hectic season, the Pirates overcame obstacles to find a way to continue. It started with a game-altering fourth save on their 4-yard line, followed by a 16-0 score in the final nine minutes to advance.
“Whenever people think we’re done, we stabilize the ship and save the season,” said Grider. “There were people outside of here who wanted it, but it didn’t fall apart.
“There’s no question Wes did a terrific job. And the players, I remember telling them earlier in the season that we have a lot of talented individuals, but we don’t really have a team. -being that they took that as a challenge. “
WORK TO DO
When the team’s bus returned to town shortly after 2 a.m. last Saturday, the police car’s lights flickered and sirens roared to alert the sleeping town that the pirates were at home.
Just before 8:30 a.m. and with just three hours of sleep behind him, Stone unlocked the lodge doors, put his coffee down on a table, and began watching video of a McKenzie team defeating two 2020 State Champions. (first knocking out 1A champion Fayetteville in the quarter-finals, then fended off reigning 3-time 2A champion Peabody – who had also fallen in the standings this fall) to reach the title game.
The Rebels (14-0) are the Pirates’ next challenge (10-2), but the 3 p.m. Class 1A BlueCross Bowl at Finley Stadium will also give South Pittsburg one last chance to prove the skeptics wrong.
“When I was asked to help take over, I knew our kids were having confidence issues because their coach had just left them,” Stone said. “I told them that they would see that they could trust me because I would be here to work as hard as I can, every day, to make sure their season ends where it deserves to be, and it’s in Chattanooga.
“This is my school, and I know how important the program is to this community, so it’s a pretty nice feeling to know that we’re still one of the only teams still playing with a chance of winning it all. again.”
BEST OF THE BEST
The 10 best programs in TSSAA playoff history by winning:
1. Maryville, playoff record 133-25 (17 Crown titles)
2. Alcoa, 125-15 (19 titles)
3. Brentwood Academy, 106-31 (14 titles)
4. Trousdale County, 91-32 (nine titles)
5. South Pittsburg, 89-32 (five titles)
6. Milan, 88-40 (four titles)
7. Oak Ridge, 74-36 (four titles)
8. Riverdale, 71-30 (four titles)
9. Goodpasture, 66-31 (three titles)
10. Marion County, 63-35 (four titles)