SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - Sitting alone on the team bus after the most embarrassing loss of his career, South Pittsburg football coach Vic Grider was too livid to speak.
With the scoreboard lights still flashing Signal Mountain's 65-36 thrashing of the Pirates, Grider completed the postgame handshake with opposing coaches and walked directly to a front seat on the bus without addressing his players or assistants. Silence remained throughout the 45-minute ride down the mountain and back home, but when the team returned to the fieldhouse the following Monday, Grider did not mince words.
"I'm a pretty competitive person and we're not used to getting beat like that," Grider recalled. "To be honest, once we got behind I thought our kids shut it down and just took it, and I couldn't stand that. We went into that game with some injuries and came out with a few more because they beat us up, and I knew the excuse-making had to stop.
"We were at a crossroads after getting hammered in that game. We could either continue to feel sorry for ourselves or we could step up like men. That was actually the turning point in our season, and the kids have answered the call."
The Pirates have allowed more than two touchdowns just once in the nine games since that loss and have been even stingier in their four playoff wins. Two playoff opponents managed to score one late meaningless TD each, and the other two were shut out in the second half as the Pirates have returned to the Class 1A state championship for a third straight year.
They will play second-ranked Wayne County (13-0) at 1 p.m. EST Friday in the title game at Cookeville.
In earning a return trip to Tennessee Tech, South Pittsburg has won three consecutive road playoff games for the first time in program history, beating three state-ranked opponents on their home fields, and now is one win away from becoming the first 1A team in 13 years to repeat as a TSSAA champion.
"We just seem to take a little while to settle in, but once we do we're pretty stout," Grider said. "The key has been our experience. We can make adjustments during the game pretty quickly because our kids have played so much football. They only need to be told once what changes we need to make, and they go out and do their job.
"We thought coming into the season that defense would be our strength because of the experience. We're as healthy now as we've been on that side of the ball, and we're showing how dominant we can be on defense."
In last week's semifinal at Gordonsville, the Tigers drove nearly 80 yards in 10 plays to score the game's first touchdown, never gaining less than 4 yards on any play. But they managed fewer than 100 yards of total offense the rest of the way.
Seniors Coltin Blevins and Karrell Hutchins have led a linebacking corps that has chased the ball sideline to sideline, allowing less than 4 yards per play in the postseason. Opponents also are completing just 40 percent of their passes, and the Pirates' defense has created 19 turnovers.
Blevins, who Monday added 1A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year awards to go along with last year's BlueCross Bowl defensive MVP plaque, has 38 tackles in the playoffs, despite being double-teamed most of the time. Hutchins is right behind him in tackles and is the Pirates' best pass rusher.
"Those two kids have played a ton of football over their careers," Pirates defensive coordinator Danny Wilson said. "Karrell loves to attack and Coltin is not only athletically gifted, he understands what we're trying to do and what offenses are trying to do. All good linebackers have to have a little bit of a gift to be able to find the football, and those two guys are constantly around the ball."