Taking more than four months to complete, this was the longest high school football season in tri-state area history. It started with the Tennessee jamborees the second week of August and ended the second week of December when two area teams played in the Georgia state championship games at the Georgia Dome.
While this was the first season since 2008 not to have an area Tennessee team play for a state title, it was also the first time since 1961 that two northwest Georgia teams played for a title in the same year. And when Calhoun and Ridgeland both reached their classifications' state finals, it marked the 14th straight year to have a Chattanooga-area team play for a title in either Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama.
Along the way, with that many weeks to cover, of course there would be plenty of memorable moments. Here are a few of those moments that stand out.
• Ridgeland overcame potential early-season distractions to put together the best season in program history. One distraction came when the Freedom From Religion group questioned the coaches' practice of leading prayer and holding team meetings at local churches, and there also was the recruiting frenzy surrounding All-America safety Vonn Bell, who narrowed his list of choices to three and then refused to discuss the issue any further during the season.
The Panthers opened the season with a narrow loss to perennial power Calhoun, which scored with four seconds remaining to claim the seven-point victory. Along the way to winning 13 straight games, advancing past the second round for the first time in program history and playing for the Class AAAA championship, the Panthers got a fantastic performance from Bell against Dalton when he had 271 total yards and four touchdowns. Then they rode the broad shoulders of fullback Darrell Bridges, who averaged 200-plus rushing yards through the first four rounds of the playoffs and finished with more than 2,300 yards and 39 TDs.
Against second-ranked Marist in the semifinals, Bridges also threw for 110 yards and two TDs, including the eventual game-winner with 36 seconds remaining. The Panthers then held on when Marist's 34-yard field-goal attempt at the buzzer hit the right upright and bounced back to the field.
• Calhoun extended its streak of playing for the Class AA state title to five straight, an amazing accomplishment. The Yellow Jackets won 29 consecutive games to reach the final in Atlanta, including a 35-point whipping of No. 2-ranked Brooks County. Quarterback Taylor Lamb threw for more than 3,200 yards and 37 TDs along the way, but the Yellow Jackets, who had claimed their first championship last season, fell flat in the Dome, losing to Jefferson.
• It was a year for first-year coaches to make immediate impacts. Three veteran coaches in their first season with new programs and one first-time head coach made headlines with surprising seasons.
No coach in Tennessee made a bigger first-year impact than Mac McCurry at Marion County. After a program-worst 1-9 finish, the Warriors earned nine wins under McCurry, advancing to the quarterfinals before losing at eventual state champion Friendship Christian. Marion won its first two games by one point each and had numerous injuries to key players, but McCurry and his team continued to find ways to overcome those issues.
Jason Fitzgerald had known success in his years at Rhea County, but the job he did in his first season at Hixson rivaled any of his previous work. Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats' 7-4 finish was their best in 14 years and included a second-place finish in District 6-AA, which earned them the right to host a first-round playoff game.
Similarly, Glen Ryan had experience running winning programs in the past but faced an uphill battle when he took over a Walker Valley program that had totaled three wins in the three previous seasons. In his first year with the Mustangs, he helped them win five games and reach the playoffs for only the second time in eight years.
And Charles Fant, in his first season as a head coach, led Notre Dame to a nine-win season and the second round of the Class 4A playoffs before losing at top-ranked Giles County. The Irish finished second in District 7-AA.
• For years Polk County's offense has been brutally simple, like a sledgehammer pounding most opponents into submission. And late in the regular season, junior running back Zach Miller used that simplistic style to put his name in the record books. Miller set a new area record by rushing for 411 yards and six touchdowns on 44 carries in a 47-21 win over Sequoyah. Four of the TDs covered at least 38 yards, and his total broke the previous area record by 32 yards.
• Aside from Miller, another underclassman running back who ran with a bulldozer mentality was Marion County sophomore Blake Zeman, a 5-foot-9, 208-pound bruiser who turned in a breakout season. He ran for at least 135 yards seven times, including a school-record 337 against Lookout Valley, and helped the Warriors make the biggest turnaround in the state this year.
He turned in his most complete game in a first-round playoff win, carrying 19 times for 143 yards and four touchdowns to go with eight tackles, an interception and a forced fumble on defense. He finished with more than 1,800 yards and never was tackled for a loss, also catching five TD passes and returning two kickoffs for scores as well as making 140 total tackles.
• With nine starters back on both sides of the ball, East Hamilton started the season with a 41-point win over Signal Mountain and defended its District 6-AA title, then advanced to the state quarterfinals despite losing all-state running back Logan Jackson to a knee injury in the first round. Jackson and four teammates earned all-state honors as the Hurricanes finished a program-best 11-2, falling at top-ranked and unbeaten Giles County by six in the quarterfinals.
• In the program's previous seven years of existence, Silverdale Baptist had just one winning season and had not gotten past the first round of the playoffs in two previous trips. But in Al Rogers' second year heading the program, the Seahawks went 10-2 -- three more wins than the previous most for the program -- and reached the second round.
• Boyd-Buchanan continued to be the model of consistency, winning its fifth straight district title, and was the last area Tennessee team standing, advancing to the 2A semifinals before losing at eventual champion Friendship Christian. The Buccaneers have reached at least the quarterfinals 11 of the last 14 years.
• Just weeks after a heartbreaking one-point loss at eventual state champ Gordonsville, when a two-point-conversion attempt was stopped at the 1-yard line with one minute remaining, South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider shockingly announced his resignation. After 16 seasons at his alma mater, averaging 11 wins per season and compiling a 162-43 overall record with three state titles and two runner-up finishes, and having teams in four of the last six title games, Grider announced his resignation to a surprised gathering at the team's postseason banquet.
Since his resignation, the school has had more than 100 applicants and will begin narrowing the list to 10 by next week.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...