COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- For all the talk about South Pittsburg's big-game experience and how playing in four of the last five state championship games would be an advantage, it was Wayne County, making its title game debut, that looked much more at ease on the Tennessee Tech turf Friday afternoon.
With 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, the Wildcats overcame any early jitters and the Pirates' speed advantage by executing a simple game plan to near perfection in a 27-14 win. That was the first championship of any kind for a Wayne County boys' team.
"We just didn't want to help them in any way," Wildcats coach Rick Rice said. "We knew they would break some big plays, but we just had to answer every time we got the chance and make them drive the length of the field as much as possible."
Put simply, by not beating themselves, the Wildcats beat South Pittsburg for the Class 1A title. Wayne County never fumbled or threw an interception, had just two penalties and only one play that went for negative yardage, and other than one long pass play, they forced the Pirates to earn every yard rather than breaking big plays as they had done throughout the playoffs.
The Pirates' average starting point for seven possessions was their own 16, while Wayne County's average start for eight possessions was its own 41.
Forced to drive the length of the field so often, the Pirates failed to execute well enough to score on five of those possessions. A dropped pass that would have gained a first down on their opening possession led to a failed conversion attempt on a fourth-and-2, and on their second possession a 70-yard touchdown run by Demetric Johnson was called back by a holding penalty that happened behind the play. That series ended with a Pirates punt.
Even when the Pirates got a big play, as they did when Jake Stone connected with Antonio Chubb for a championship-record 98-yard touchdown pass, they wound up hurting themselves. Chubb was called for a celebration penalty on the score, a 15-yard penalty that was assessed on the kickoff and led to Wayne County starting its next drive at midfield. That series resulted in a scoring drive for the Wildcats.
"It hurts bad because we wanted to go out as the first senior class to win back-to-back championships," said Chubb, who took two painkilling injections in his left ankle before the game. "I took the shots just so I could play because I wanted to help my team. We let ourselves down."
South Pittsburg had just two second-half possessions, the last of which went 18 plays and 71 yards to the Wayne County 2 before a procedure penalty pushed the Pirates back to the 7 on second down. They were held on downs from there, and Wayne County, clinging to a six-point lead at the time, countered with a 10-play, 84-yard scoring drive that chewed six minutes off the clock and put the game away.
"Every time we had a chance to seize the game, we did something dumb," South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider said. "This was the 15th game of the season, so there's no excuse for some of the mistakes we made. We just got outplayed and outcoached by a team that wanted it more.
"They deserved to win because they didn't make mistakes, and we made just enough to cost ourselves a chance to win another championship."