What: Marion County (10-2) will play at Trousdale County (12-0) in a Class 2A quarterfinal playoff game.
When: Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. today (Eastern).
JASPER, Tenn. - The courthouse square and most of the business hub are located in the center of this map-dot town. To find the heart of Jasper, however, continue on past its only two-story buildings and the modest homes lining Betsy Pack Drive and turn right onto Warrior Drive.
Continue past Ridley's farm equipment and the other ball fields until you reach Bill Baxter Stadium.
Like so many small Southern towns, when the air turns crisp and the stands are packed with neighbors and the tractor whistle blows as Marion County High School's Warriors take the field, the players' energy and excitement stir the town.
Warrior football is the town's identity.
"I get chills just sitting here talking about what playing here meant to me," said Larry Richards, who was named the team's interim head coach after Mac McCurry resigned Wednesday morning. "This football program is the biggest thing we've got in this town. It's the one thing everybody here agrees on and supports."
But during the past week, four Warriors coaches have been charged with a laundry list of offenses related to the football program, leading to their dismissals or resignations.
The arrests and the alleged crimes have made national headlines and stolen the spotlight from Marion's players, who have earned their way to the quarterfinals of the Class 2A playoffs, where they will travel to second-ranked and unbeaten Trousdale County tonight.
The scandal has brought this entire community to its knees. But while more allegations are being investigated, the players themselves see tonight's game as a first step to reclaiming the pride within their program and their school.
And to healing the town.
Former players such as Eddie Brown, Eric Westmoreland, Pumpy Tudors and Jason Muir became town heroes because of their Friday night exploits, and Ken Colquette became a coaching legend by building the program into one of the most respected in the state.
The Warriors claimed four state championships in a six-year span and went 58-1 during one stretch, winning those games with a mix of talent and toughness, and making the town's heart swell with pride.
But that heart has been broken.
In the past week, assistants Michael Schmitt and Joe Dan Gudger were arrested on charges of vandalizing the school's fieldhouse, which was graffitied with orange and black spray paint in the early morning hours of Nov. 1 in a ploy to make it look like it was done by supporters of county rival South Pittsburg. Gudger was also charged with illegal possession of alcohol on school property, and fellow assistant Tim Starkey was dismissed after text messages showed he had broken into the South Pittsburg fieldhouse to steal play charts.
On Wednesday morning, with evidence showing he had knowledge of the vandalism and improperly paid a college athlete, former South Pittsburg all-state running back Raquis Hale, to practice against the Marion defenders to help them prepare for the Pirates' speed advantage, head coach Mac McCurry resigned.
Richards has spent the past two seasons coaching the middle school program and was given the task of trying to help the teenage players cope with the enormity of a whirlwind week, all while preparing to travel to one of the state's most hostile home-field advantages.
"It's embarrassing," said Richards, who played at Marion and joined the coaching staff in 1980. "It's hurt our school, our town and worst of all our kids. But this was done by adults who made some really bad decisions. The rest of us here, we feel betrayed by those guys because we trusted them as coaches and friends.
"These kids don't need to be lumped in with that. It's not their fault."
Ready to play
Senior receiver Clay O'Shields began playing on the varsity last year simply because he wanted to be a part of something special. He has worked his way into becoming a two-way starter and is one of the reasons the Warriors have won 10 games this season and still have state title hopes.
"The team is just focusing on the goals we set before the season even started," O'Shields said. "Having the game to look forward to has been huge for us. We have a lot of frustration and pent-up emotion that we can finally let out on the field.
"Wearing the uniform and the helmet that says 'Marion' on it means everything to me. Nothing compares to the feeling we get on Friday night, because we know everybody in town is behind us. That's just like nothing you can even describe."
Many supporters in Jasper plan to give the team a send-off this afternoon, gathering to line Betsy Pack Drive as the bus loaded with players and remaining coaches begins making its way on the two-hour ride to Trousdale County. According to school Superintendent Mark Griffith, there's even a contingent of South Pittsburg fans who will line the streets in Kimball to show their support as the team makes its way out of town.
"Our goal is to be practicing on Thanksgiving Day because that means we're playing again next Friday," Richards said. "This team belongs to these kids, and we're going to ride them as far as they want to go. They deserve to be proud of being on that field. I know me and this whole community, we're already very proud of them for the way they've handled everything.
"They've been an example a lot of adults should follow."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.