While Baylor took a direct route, South Pittsburg followed a longer, more winding road to return to Cookeville. But all that matters this week for the Red Raiders and Pirates is that each team found its way back to Tennessee Tech for another chance to claim a state football championship.
Top-ranked Baylor had a first-round bye, then won two home playoff games to return to the Division II-AA title game, while South Pittsburg has won three straight road games against state-ranked hosts to earn its way back in Class 1A.
The Tucker Stadium turf was the site of Baylor's worst heartbreak last year as Ensworth scored with just seconds remaining in regulation to claim a seven-point win and its first TSSAA title. The top-ranked Red Raiders (11-1) get their chance to avenge that loss Thursday at 8 p.m. EST against the second-ranked Tigers (11-1).
This will be the fourth meeting between Baylor and Ensworth in the last two years. But while Ensworth won both games in 2010, Baylor gained confidence in the series by whipping the Tigers by 28 earlier this season.
South Pittsburg, defending its 1A championship, is in the title game for the third straight season and fourth time in five years. The Pirates (12-2) will face second-ranked Wayne County (13-0), which will be making its first appearance in a title game in program history. The 1A championship game is set for Friday at 1 p.m. EST.
"The motivation of being there last year helps us retain our focus this year," said Baylor coach Phil Massey, whose team had a week off after its semifinal win. "Our goal at the very beginning of the season was to get back and have the opportunity to claim that unfinished business. We're there now, knocking on the door.
"From the kids' standpoint, it probably helps that we're playing Ensworth again. This isn't something that's a given every year, and I think they realize we need to take advantage of this opportunity."
The turning point in South Pittsburg's semifinal win at Gordonsville came late in the third quarter. While clinging to a six-point lead, the Pirates lost a fumble at their 14, but the defense held on the next four snaps and Gordonsville turned it over on downs at the 9.
Two series later, Demetric Johnson turned the corner and, after being shoved toward the sideline, managed to regain his balance, stay in bounds and race 84 yards for the touchdown that sealed the win.
"The defense made plays the whole second half, but that series down near our goal line was just huge," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "That changed the whole game back in our favor. They could have taken the lead and put us in a tough spot, but instead we got it back with the momentum.
"The defense won us the game."
The championship week preparation begins Monday for both teams with the TSSAA's Mr. Football awards banquet. The Red Raiders and Pirates have two finalists each for those honors.
Baylor's Barrett Gouger, a Vanderbilt commitment, is up for Division II-AA's Lineman of the Year, and teammate Henrique Ribeiro is one of three finalists for Kicker of the Year. Pirates senior offensive guard and linebacker Coltin Blevins is a finalist for the 1A Lineman award, and sophomore Jajuan Lankford is a 1A Back of the Year finalist.