Friday was a tough day for Signal Mountain and sunset brought no relief.
The Eagles, and surely you've heard by now, were assessed a six-game penalty for a clerical error Friday afternoon, dropping them from 6-1 to 0-1. Then just when boosters thought things couldn't get worse, Polk County plays perhaps its best and most opportunistic game of the year and hands Signal a 36-35 loss.
Those same boosters might blame it on lack of focus or overall team despondency -- and one assistant noted that the team seemed quite flat -- but this one would have been a good game regardless.
Polk's defensive staff devised just enough aggravations to keep Signal off-balance and the Wildcats knew almost with certainly what was coming depending on the formation and the alignment of either the wing or the single receiver. Too, though, the Eagles' defense has yet to throw Wildcats' running back Chase Mull or quarterback Alex Akins for a loss. They were so focused on Derrick Saxe and, yes, they did do a good job of defending his bread-and-butter plays, but they didn't adjust real well to Polk's deviations from past games.
"I don't think we expected their physicality or the [quick] tempo," Eagles fullback/linebacker Zack Bowman said.
Polk coach Derrick Davis warned his starters in a pregame meeting that Signal had just learned about the TSSAA vacating six wins for playing an ineligible player, and told them the Eagles would likely be mad and frustrated.
"I've been here 12 years now, and we've been beat by some good teams and we have beat some good teams. This has to be among the top [wins]," Davis said afterwards. "There was a lot of Polk County pride and this one, I think the boys believed a little more than I did."
And Signal was quick to credit Polk, from coach Bill Price, who said straight up that the Wildcats outplayed his team, to quarterback Reese Phillips, who said Signal's situation had nothing to do with the game that the Wildcats played.
"We made mental mistakes and we weren't ready to play. Put that on me," Price said.
"The news [of the vacating of wins] affected us a lot," Bowman said. "You go from being on top the bottom, but I think this will eventually bring us closer together."
To put the game in perspective, Price decided to gamble early on a fourth-and-1 at his own 29. It's a cinch for the Eagles, or has been in the past nine times out of 10. This one, though, was the 10th, and the Wildcats capitalized with a score.
Too, with regard to focus -- Polk had three penalties for 33 yards (none in the first half) and one of those was for unsportsmanlike conduct (more on that later) while Signal had nine for 90.
In his postgame meeting with the team, the coach talked with them about learning life's lessons and dealing with adversity and how you dealt with adversity said a lot of you as an individual.
"A lot of things happened that got you down," he said. "They got me down too. You're going to have adversity in life. You have to overcome it. We have two games left for sure so let's make the most of our opportunities."
• Eagles' coaches and boosters are conversing among themselves and naturally wondering aloud which glass house resident -- you know, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" -- might have reported the Eagles' oversight.
Signal Mountain administrators were told that several comments were made before or after a TSSAA administrators meeting on Sept. 22 at Tyner, and more than a few folks around town seemed to know a lot about what was going on. Those comments were not made during the meeting, according to what Eagles principal Dr. Tom McCullough says he was told by Patty Lane, his athletic director who attended the meeting.
"We suspected it was somebody in our district, but we're wondering how they knew something we didn't, and then there is the question of the timing," he said.
McCullough said that TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress told him he learned of possible violations at that Sept. 22 meeting. The question from Lane and McCullough to Childress on Friday was if the TSSAA thought on Sept. 22 that there might be a problem then why was Signal Mountain not informed until Thursday, Oct. 6?
Their reasoning was that if Signal had known on Sept. 22 or early on Sept. 23 that there could be a problem, they could have held out the player in question and left themselves with the possibility of having four wins vacated instead of six. The last win of the six that were vacated was a district victory, and had Signal Mountain had even five wins vacated, that last win would have left them with a shot at finishing first or second in District 7-AA and grabbing an automatic playoff berth with three wins against no losses in the district. Now the most they can get realistically is two with games remaining against 7-AA opponents Chattanooga Christian on Thursday and Sequatchie County in the regular season finale on Oct. 28.
• The aforementioned questioning of the timing of the notification may lend itself to some sort of appeal from Signal Mountain with the possibility of getting one or even two of the vacated games returned to the Eagles.
First, though, the school's administrators must decide is whether or not there are enough grounds to ask for a reduction in the number of games vacated. It is apparent from comments made on Friday by McCullough that an appeal to overturn the entire TSSAA verdict will bear no fruit.
If the reduction was the two games that took place after the Sept. 22 meeting, one -- a win over Notre Dame -- will be all they needed to at least have a shot at the playoffs.
• One thing you never expect to see from Polk County or Signal Mountain players is unsportsmanlike penalties. The teams are usually so disciplined, perhaps unwilling to risk their coaches' wrath. Each got one Friday. Polk's was for openly taunting after an Indian defender managed to knock a pass away from Signal receiver Jon Patton (and the same defender also delivered a questionable hit just moments earlier). Signal's was for a running back throwing the ball at a Sequatchie player who tackled him. No room for any of the above, and I'd wager that the offenders will either be running on Monday and Tuesday or sitting for a while Friday night, or both.
• There are new leaders is rushing, passing and receiving categories for the year's best performances, which are listed elsewhere on the website.
Cedric Edwards now has the best rushing performance of the year after rushing for 387 yards in 34 carries against Walker Valley Friday night. The previous leader had been South Pittsburg sophomore Jajuan Lankford, who had a school-record 366 yards on Sept. 30.
Southeast Whitfield's Levi Sams had a 349-yard passing night against Ringgold, displacing Ooltewah's Bradley Stephens, who now had three of the top four passing spots.
And among receivers, the year's best effort to date belongs to Whitwell's Clay Easterly after his 267-yard performance Friday against Sequatchie County.
• Speaking of Sequatchie County, Jerry Fain, the Indians senior running back, locked up his second 1,000-yard season against Whitwell with his 15-carry, 226-yard showing. The effort pushes him to 1,008 yards with Notre Dame this week and Signal Mountain on Oct. 28.
• The North Alabama teams continue to roll, each picking up a win Friday. North Jackson is 7-0 and Fort Payne, Ider and North Sand Mountain each stand at 6-1.
Ider has the biggest challenge. The Hornets are on the road to play Fyffe, which is undefeated. North Sand Mountain, which gave Ider its only loss, is also on the road but will face winless Victory Christian.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...