Tennessee Class 1A final
SOUTH PITTSBURG PIRATES (12-2) vs. WAYNE COUNTY WILDCATS (13-0)
Today, 1 (Eastern)
Coaches, records: South Pittsburg's Vic Grider is 161-35, including three state championships and one runner-up in 15 seasons at his alma mater; Wayne County's Rick Rice 143-97 in 14 years as head coach.
How they got here: Defending state champion South Pittsburg beat Grace Academy 56-13 in the first round, sixth-ranked Greenback 28-17 in the second round, fifth-ranked Coalfield 36-6 in the quarterfinals and ninth-ranked Gordonsville 32-14 in the semifinals. The last three wins have come on the road, the first time in program history the Pirates have won three straight road games in the playoffs. Second-ranked Wayne County had a first-round bye, then beat Clarksville Academy 42-20 in the second round, Huntingdon 27-13 in the quarterfinals and West Carroll 33-0 in the semifinals.
Besides knocking off top-ranked Huntingdon on the road in the second round, Wayne County also owns wins over Milan, which is playing in the 3A championship game, and Dresden, which is playing for the 2A title. South Pittsburg is trying to become the first 1A program to repeat as state champion since Trousdale County in 1997-98. Every other classification has had at least one repeat champion in the last 13 years. The Pirates would also surpass Trousdale for most 1A titles, with six.
The key: This will be the first meeting between these teams and it's also the first time Wayne County has reached a title game. South Pittsburg is making its third straight championship appearance and fourth in the last five years, winning two titles in that time. But while the Pirates have the edge in title-game experience, Wayne County counters by starting 11 seniors on both sides of the ball, and 10 of 11 starters on special teams are seniors. Most of the Wildcats' 17 seniors have played together since they were 5 years old.
"I probably changed some of their diapers," Coach Rice joked. "This is the group our community has talked about getting over the hump. We had never gotten past the semifinals so there was a lot of pressure on the kids. But they've gotten there."
Wayne County had held 10 of its opponents to two touchdowns or less and scored five TDs or more in all but one game. Because both teams lean heavily on their power running games and keep opponents off balance with just enough of a threat to throw the ball, whichever one establishes dominance on the ground first likely will claim the crown.
Players to watch: South Pittsburg senior linebacker Coltin Blevins, who Monday added 1A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year awards to go with last year's BlueCross Bowl defensive MVP plaque, has 109 solo tackles and 10 for loss. Offensively the Pirates are led by the running back tandem of sophomore Jajuan Lankford, a Mr. Football finalist with 2,040 rushing yards and 29 TDs, and junior Demetric "Little Man" Johnson, who adds 1,231 yards and 19 TDs. Each averages more than 9 yards per carry, and junior quarterback Jake Stone adds balance with 1,416 passing yards and 15 TDs. Receivers Antonio Chubb and Matt Allen have been limited throughout the playoffs because of ankle injuries, but both are expected to try to play.
Wayne County's Mr. Football Lineman finalist Boston Ray has 95 tackles and Nick Horton has 90 stops and has returned one interception for a TD. Peyton Mathis leads a secondary that has 19 interceptions with five and also has 699 receiving yards and seven TDs. Clint Butler's 1,255 rushing yards leads an offense that has used 12 ball carriers. Quarterback Austin Rice has rushed for 921 yards and 18 TDs and thrown for 988 yards and another nine scores.
Georgia Class AA semifinal
APPLING COUNTY PIRATES (12-1) at CALHOUN YELLOW JACKETS (13-0)
Coaches, records: Appling's J.T. Pollock is 48-29-1 with a best finish of 10-2 in 2009; Calhoun's Hal Lamb is 146-43 and has taken the Yellow Jackets to four state championship games.
How they got here: Second-ranked Calhoun defeated Jefferson 39-6, Brooks County 43-30 and Dublin 45-7; Appling defeated Thomasville 28-18, North Oconee 26-13 and Lamar County 35-33 in four overtimes. This is the first meeting between Appling County and Cahoun.
The key: For the Jackets to earn a berth in a fourth consecutive Class AA state title game, they must control the defensive pressure from the Appling front. The Pirates have posted four shutouts this season, and the strength of that defensive unit lies up front. That means a banged-up Calhoun offensive line will have to play its best game of the season. A key defensively for the Jackets will be keeping Appling quarterback Lashune Moore in the pocket.
Players to watch: Appling brings one of the nation's most coveted athletes to Phil Reeve Stadium tonight in Byron Buxton, though not in this sport. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder senior is arguably the top prep right-handed baseball pitcher in country. He's also the Pirates' top receiver and often is used on jump balls. Appling's other offensive weapons include running backs C.J. Nails and Donnell McMillan and receiver Justin Javis. Top defenders are tackle Justin Ellis, linebackers Nails and Derrix Henry and back C.J. Alexander. Calhoun's potent spread attack is triggered by junior quarterback Taylor Lamb, who has thrown for 10 touchdowns in the three playoff games has completed over 70 percent of his passes. Lamb spreads the ball around to a bevy of receivers, including cousin Ben Lamb, Clay Johnson, Chase Rierson and Josh Barnes. No team has had an answer for the relentless pressure applied by Calhoun's defense, led by end Reed Allen and linebackers Alex Kirby, Hunter Knight, Gabe Freeman and Trent Frix. Johnson, a rare two-way starter for the Jackets, likely will be matched up with Buxton. Calhoun has a decided advantage in the kicking game with senior Adam Griffith, who put all seven of his kickoffs into the end zone last week.
Up next: The winner will face Buford or Columbus Carver in next Friday's Class AA championship at the Georgia Dome.