Greenback football downs South Pittsburg, makes third straight title game

GREENBACK — Winning hasn’t gotten old for the Greenback football program just yet.

Friday night’s 31-21 Class 1A semifinal victory over South Pittsburg will send the Cherokees to their third consecutive state championship game.

And, judging by the smile on the face of junior quarterback Bryce Hanley, the trip to Cookeville for Thursday’s 11 a.m. game is still pretty special.

Greenback will take on Cornersville, see info on them below.

“Before the game, coach (Greg Ryan) talked to us about taking in the moment,” Hanley said. “Years from now, we’ll remember what it was like to play in this great atmosphere; with a (standing-room only) crowd like this (lining Cooper Field).”

“We never want to get to the point where we’re taking winning for granted,” Ryan said.

The Cherokees (12-1) overcame three fumbles and used a fourth-quarter 14-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up about 7 minutes to ice the win over the Pirates (13-1).

Greenback led 24-21, having just stopped South Pitt at the Cherokees’ 25. This came after the Cherokees were stopped at the Pirates’ 5 on downs.

“When I came in the huddle, I said, ‘Let’s get a 5-minute drive and put this thing away,’” said Hanley. “They did about 2 minutes better.

“When we got stopped on fourth-and-2 (at the 5, late in the third quarter), our (offensive) line took it personally. Nobody stops us like that. That (7-minute) drive was the answer.”

Hanley had two double-digit runs and Breeden Gilbert capped the march with a 1-yard run for his second TD. Gilbert, who ran 15 times for 70 yards, also threw for a 40-yard touchdown to Seth Riddle after catching a lateral from Hanley.

“We’ve had that play in there for a couple weeks,” said Ryan. “This was just the right time for it.”

“I got caught up in traffic a little bit,” Gilbert explained. “I just wanted to put the ball up and give (Riddle) a chance to catch it.”

Early in the game, it seemed like Gilbert was going to have a short night. In the second quarter, he hobbled off the field after rolling an ankle. Three plays later, the two-way player busted a 17-yard run and proved he was fine.

“He’s like (legendary NFL running back) Jim Brown,” Ryan said. “He’ll hobble around, then break a big one. He’ll come at you hard.”

“My adrenaline was going,” Gilbert said. “It hurt, but it wasn’t going to stop me.”

Not much stopped him … or the Cherokees.

They grabbed an early 7-0 lead, but South Pitt answered on a 1-yard run by Garrett Raulston, who finished with 24 carries for 118 yards and three scores. Josh Edwards returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a TD that kept the Cherokees on a roll.

“(South Pitt was) kind of weak on the outside,” Edwards said. “It was perfect execution. Our blockers were great. They gave me a hole and I took it.”

Riddle caught four passes for 107 yards and Holden Willis had five receptions for 103 yards.

Cornersville advance to school's first football championship game

CORNERSVILLE — As Adam Qualls stood on the Cornersville High School football field for the last time, he wore a wide smile and took a look at the hundreds of people who had come on to the field to celebrate with him and his teammates.

Thanks in large part to teammate Brock Powers' red-zone interception Friday night that helped preserve a 7-0 state semifinal win over Lake County, the Bulldogs are going to play for the Class 1A state title.

Improbable? Qualls doesn’t think so. He said he’s seen this coming.

“We believed it from Day One, when coach (Gerard) Randolph took over three years ago, we believed we would be here,” Qualls said. “It feels amazing. You work all your life, from Little League until now, and now you finally know what it feels like to go to state.”

Cornersville, which will play Greenback at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl, had never even won a playoff game before this season. But the Bulldogs went 9-1 during the regular season, then rolled for a pair of easy wins before knocking off Huntington in a quarterfinal, 21-20.

“Just to make it this far, it’s crazy,” Powers said. “That first year coach Randolph got year, it was tough. We had a 3-7 season, and we were all young, and we just had to come in work hard every day. We just had to get bigger, faster, stronger. That was his motto.”

That work ethic paid handsomely Friday. After Eli Woodard ran for a touchdown in the middle of the first quarter, neither team scored again. For the longest time, the closest Lake County came was a third-quarter trip to the red zone that ended with Qualls’ interception.

The Falcons made a final effort to drive, getting to the Cornersville 15-yard line with two seconds left. But the defense came up with a game-ending sack, and about 150 fans rushed the field to celebrate.

“This is just great for this program,” Randolph said. “I’m speechless right now. This is a testament to the hard work they’ve put in. I’m super-proud of these kids, these coaches. We had a great game plan and we carried it out, and I’m just so glad to get the win.”