To say the least, Alvin Tarver will be grateful to be done with September's sadistic schedule.
Coming off last year's region championship, his Howard team began this high school football season with great promise, but it has become more about survival of late. After the Hustlin' Tigers opened with an August victory, things turned sour for them when the calendar turned to September.
First came a one-point upset loss to Central and then a gauntlet unlike any team has faced in state history. Tonight Howard will become the first TSSAA team ever to have faced No. 1-ranked opponents three consecutive weeks. Following the loss to Central, the Hustlin' Tigers played Class 2A's top-ranked Boyd-Buchanan, 4A's No. 1 Red Bank and now 3A's top-ranked Alcoa, arguably the best team in the state regardless of classification.
Tarver guided Howard to a 25-9 overall record, that region title and three playoff appearances the last three seasons. He believed scheduling elite competition this year would help the Tigers take the next step toward a deep playoff run.
"Since I took over I've had a plan in my head for where I wanted this program to be," Tarver said. "We were used to winning games around here, but we hadn't gotten past the first round yet. I believe we needed to test the waters and play higher caliber competition if we're serious about getting to that next level.
"People think I'm crazy, but if I had it to do over again, I would make the same schedule again. I don't believe in taking the easy way out."
This month, and especially the last three weeks, has been anything but easy. The combined 104-32 whipping at the hands of the Buccaneers and Lions has left Tarver and the Hustlin' Tigers' coaching staff to spend as much time focusing on players' shaken confidence as their X's and O's.
"I'm not going to make excuses," Tarver said. "We've played some real good teams, but we just haven't shown up. We should be better than this.
"It has been tough, but I still believe in what we're trying to accomplish and what we're doing. We're coaching the kids' minds, trying to keep their spirits up, and we're constantly talking to them about character and how they have to keep fighting. I'm telling the kids that you can't help but get better playing this competition, and it will help in the coming games still on our schedule."
After tonight, Howard's schedule lightens considerably with District 6-AA games against Brainerd, East Hamilton, Hixson, Tyner and East Ridge remaining. Only Brainerd has a winning record among that group.
But tonight's opponent is not the team to play when you're looking for a confidence boost. Alcoa is the first team in state history to have won five consecutive state championships. The Tornadoes have six titles this decade and 10 overall and since 2004 are 69-6, with five of those losses coming to cross-county rival and perennial state power Maryville.
In 11 of the Tornadoes' last 19 games, they haven't allowed a touchdown, and already this year they have blasted Kentucky's 4A defending state champion 42-14 to open the season and handed Maryville its first regular-season loss since the fourth week of the 2001 season. That 41-24 whipping was the second-worst in Rebels coach George Quarles' career.
Alcoa also has a 20-point win over 4A's fifth-ranked Knoxville Fulton, and its last loss to another team in its classification came in the 2003 state semifinals.
"We're at a point where our kids just expect to be one of the top teams in the state every year," said Alcoa coach Gary Rankin, who won four state titles at Murfreesboro Riverdale before taking over the Tornadoes in 2006. "We didn't put up any statues on campus after we beat Maryville. Our kids don't get big eyes against anybody, and they believe they can beat any other team in any other class."
Tarver is hoping the current series of September growing pains will eventually produce a similar attitude within the Howard program.