GORDONSVILLE, Tenn. -- With apologies to the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it's been for South Pittsburg's football team to get back to Cookeville and the chance to defend its Class 1A state championship.
A season in which the Pirates gave up the most points in a single game in more than 50 years when Signal Mountain lit them up for 65 early, followed by having their streak of scoring in 92 straight games snapped when they lost 3-0 in triple overtime at Knoxville Grace, can now end with the only thing anybody wearing orange and black cares about -- a sixth state title.
Even that chance, which was made possible with Friday's 32-14 victory here, comes about only after the Pirates claimed three consecutive road victories over state-ranked opponents in the playoffs, the first time in program history they have taken such a difficult postseason trip to reach a title game.
"I'd like to know if that's ever been done by anybody, to go on the road and win three straight, against state-ranked teams, just to get there," Pirates defensive coordinator Danny Wilson said after his unit held the Tigers scoreless in the second half and allowed just 57 rushing yards in the deciding final two quarters. "I'm not sure that you can really explain just how tough a road its been these last three weeks, but these kids found a way every week to get it done.
"We made a couple of adjustments after their first drive, but credit an experienced bunch of kids for making it happen."
The loss at Knox Grace to end the regular season also meant that despite winning its district, South Pittsburg would not receive a first-round bye and would get to break out the home black uniforms again only if it reached the title game for the fourth time in five years.
The Pirates did reach their destination at Tennessee Tech despite being having 11 starters miss significant action along the way, getting outgained in total yards at Greenback in the second round, then surviving two opponents looking to avenge playoff losses from a year ago -- including Coalfield, which blared the "Deliverance" theme of dueling banjos during pregame warmups last week, followed by Gordonsville, which had won eight of its last nine games by the state's 35-point mercy rule.
The Tigers had two second-half possessions deep into South Pittsburg territory Friday, one reaching the 9, but were turned away both times on downs.
By reaching the semifinals for the first time in 23 years, Gordonsville fans made sure they created an intimidating home-field advantage, complete with lining the walkway from the visitors' locker room to the field, but South Pittsburg can now become the first team to repeat as 1A champions since Trousdale County in 1997 and '98.
The Tigers had rolled up 195 yards and four touchdowns in just 13 snaps in last week's quarterfinal win but managed just 97 total yards after their second touchdown midway through the second quarter. And a defense that had allowed an average of just nine points in its last nine games was gashed for 422 yards, including both of South Pittsburg's star running backs, Demetric Johnson and Jajuan Lankford, reaching the 100-yard mark.
"I said after we won our first-round game at home that we wanted to go to three places and dominate whoever we played on their field and make it our house," said Johnson, who rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns and also caught a 59-yard TD pass. "That's what we did, but now we have to go to one more place and make it our own."