JASPER, Tenn. - For all its big-play highlights, it was an old-fashioned gut-check drive - the kind the lettermen filling the stands love - that helped Class 1A's top-ranked South Pittsburg continue its domination of one of the state's oldest rivalries.
Four of the Pirates' five touchdowns came on plays of 49-plus yards, but while clinging to a four-point lead in the third quarter, they used a 15-play, 76-yard drive to take command and eventually pull away for a 35-17 win over Class 2A's third-ranked Marion County.
Their eighth straight win in the series also handed the Pirates (9-0, 4-0) their third straight District 6-A championship.
"It was their senior night, in front of their fans, but we talked about wanting to come in here and prove we're still the best team here," said senior Kahlil Mitchell, who had 102 yards on 14 carries, including a 60-yard TD as well as a 49-yard fumble return for a score. "Our senior class has never lost to Jasper in our career. From peewee on up, we've never lost to them, and that's a great feeling knowing they can never say anything to us.
"Now we just want to get ready to go make a run and win another state championship."
On the drive that swung momentum to the Pirates' side, they converted three fourth downs before Kitt Grider hit Corbin Fitzgerald on a 23-yard scoring pass with 37 seconds left in the third quarter. It was Grider's first pass of the game and his only completion.
Fitzgerald followed with a diving interception in the back of the end zone to stop the Warriors' next drive, and Mitchell put the game away with a 60-yard TD run.
"We thrive on big plays, but that drive in the third quarter was tremendous," Pirates coach Tim Moore said. "It was a dose of their own medicine, because they had a couple of long drives early. We just pounded them and ate up the clock and I'm real proud of the boys for the way they played."
The first half had been back and forth with Marion scoring a field goal on its first drive before South Pittsburg countered on its first play from scrimmage with a 63-yard TD dash by Jajuan Lankford. After Mitchell put the Pirates up 14-3 with a 49-yard fumble return on Marion's next series, the Warriors settled in and scored twice on long drives to take a 17-14 lead late in the first half.
However Lankford answered with a 52-yard TD run for a slim halftime lead. Lankford ended the night with 220 yards on 20 carries and a pair of scores, also winning the personal battle against fellow all-state running back Blake Zeman, who finished with 27 tough carries for 144 yards and two TDs for the Warriors (8-2, 3-1). Zeman got only 31 yards in the second half.
By halftime, the Warriors had run 37 plays, while the Pirates had just 13 snaps but used them efficiently.
"I knew they would be keying on me, but my line did a great job and I just followed their blocks, and when I got a hole, I hit it as hard as I could," said Lankford, who ran for more than 200 yards each of the last three seasons against the Warriors. "It's a good feeling to know we never lost to them in our lives, but now we have to get ready for another playoff run."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.