It's sweet to be playing in their second straight state championship game. For Baylor's Red Raiders, though, the thought of playing Ensworth for the Division II-AA title makes it even sweeter.
The Red Raiders lost to the Tigers in last year's state final on a waning-moments pass that appeared to be in Baylor hands but somehow was ruled an Ensworth touchdown.
"That's all we've talked about this year -- to get back here and have an opportunity to play Ensworth again," Baylor coach Phil Massey said.
The Red Raiders, looking to avenge that 28-21 loss last year, will play Ensworth at 8 p.m. EST Thursday at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
"I have reminded the kids of that feeling in the locker room and that they have a chance to wipe that memory away," Massey said. "For the seniors it's their last chance to play for a state championship. And I told the underclassmen that they might never get back, so each of us needs to put his complete focus and effort into this game."
Baylor secured a measure of redemption earlier this year with a 42-14 home victory over the Nashville school.
"It was just another game on the schedule," Ensworth assistant Paul Wade said. "We got off the bus and it looked like every fan had on a red shirt and then I saw the cheerleaders' sign: 'Unfinished business.' I thought after our first drive we'd be OK, and it went downhill from there. That game gave them a lot of confidence, and it showed us we had a lot of work to do."
Ensworth wound up rolling the rest of the way and enters the state final with an 11-1 record like Baylor.
"They were ready," Ensworth head coach Ricky Bowers recalled. "They played really well and deserved to win. They were clearly the better team. They beat us to death."
Massey said much of the credit for the lopsided win was due to the Red Raiders' zoned-in focus and their ability to play as one. The game also hinged on Baylor's players pouncing on every loose ball and errant throw, Red Raiders quarterback Matthew Oellerich turning in a near-flawless performance and the ability of Baylor's defense to hold Tigers running back Corn Elder in check.
Both coaching staffs seem to think the game will hinge on performances from Oellerich and Elder and how well the opposing defense can contain each.
"We didn't give Oellerich the credit he was due," Wade said. "He had big shoes [Jacob Huesman] to fill, but that game proved his worth to that team."
Oellerich ran for 113 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 121 yards and another score.
"He's the biggest surprise in the league this year," Bowers said. "Huesman was good, but I'm not so sure this guy isn't equally as effective."
Conversely, Baylor defenders limited the flashy but diminutive Elder (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) to a season-low 65 rushing yards on 18 carries.
"I like to cut back and they weren't having any of it that night," Elder recalled.
Oellerich has accumulated 2,458 yards this year with 1,508 of that coming through the air. He also leads the Red Raiders in rushing yards. Elder, a junior who already has offers from Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, enters the game with 2,030 rushing yards and another 401 as a receiver.
"If we want to win, we have to shut him down -- know where he is on every play," Oellerich said.
"We managed to grab some jersey and hold on," Massey recalled. "The guy's a scary back, and we need to keep that mentality of having 11 hats around the football."