Things have changed for Ooltewah's football team since the early part of the regular season. Or one might say things have "turned over."
The once turnover-plagued Owls have had a change of fortune, especially since postseason started. They'll be hoping for more of the same this week when they travel to Columbia Central for a TSSAA Class 5A quarterfinal Friday at 8 p.m. EST.
Ooltewah began the season 2-3 with its losses to Cleveland, Siegel and McMinn County coming in succession. The Owls committed 11 turnovers in those games while collecting five.
The losing streak was halted by a 38-6 victory over East Ridge on Sept. 21 in which Ooltewah won the turnover battle 3-1. In their state-playoff wins over Anderson County and Lenoir City, the Owls have forced a total of nine turnovers.
Sensing a pattern?
"Defensively we've really done a good job with our front causing problems in people's backfields," Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams said of the playoff games. "They've had a hard time blocking us up front. The other part of that is just scratching at the football. We've also improved some things in our secondary. We're in better positions to make the play."
Senior linebacker Alex Doss is pacing the Owls in tackles, but it's been his twin brother, Stuart, who has haunted the opposition from a turnover standpoint. In addition to causing and recovering fumbles, he's returned four of his five interceptions for touchdowns.
"He's always around the ball," said senior free safety Adam Hubert, who has contributed two interceptions this season. "It's good to have somebody like that on your defense. If we're not doing too well, that's when he makes some big plays."
Hubert said the team has grown together since its rocky start. He said the plan from the beginning was to be an opportunistic defense, it just wasn't happening the first half of the year.
Junior David Strickland can be found along the defensive line playing anywhere from end to tackle to nose guard. He views his job as trying to keep the opposing guards off Ooltewah's linebackers, who are the play-makers on defense, although he's caused two fumbles.
Strickland said Columbia reminds him of the Owls' backyard rival, which they beat 31-28 right before the losing streak began. Not coincidentally, the only turnover in that game was an interception that Ooltewah senior Craig Thompson returned 36 yards for a score.
"We're going to have to play physical," Strickland said. "From what I've seen they're a lot like East Hamilton. East Hamilton tries to pound the ball down your throat. You stop that by being physical."
Said Hubert: "I think they pretty much match us athletically. We're going to have to play sound at all positions. We've definitely got to tackle. A lot of times they do throw, too. They're a big-play team."
Williams said his offense has been equally important in winning the turnover battle by not committing any in the playoffs or the last regular-season game. The coach said he's seen some "unorthodox defenses" from its first two playoff oppponents that took "one quarter and 20 greaseboard marks to get figured out."
Now that the Owls are this far along, he believes a good start will be necessary against the Lions, especially on the road.
"They have a senior-laden team that won a state championship when they were sophomores," Williams said. "They're used to living in these rounds. We'll need something to get our energy going. Nothing does that like a turnover, a short field and a quick score."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.