Inexperienced Pirates impress on opening night of Best of Preps football jamboree

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / South Pittsburg quarterback Kamden Wellington (15) breaks away from Signal Mountain's Forrest Payne as he attempts to make a tackle during the first night of the Best of Preps football jamboree Thursday at Finley Stadium.

View more of our Best of Preps preseason coverage here.

The label of state champions will follow the South Pittsburg Pirates all season, and while no one associated with the team will complain about that, head coach Wes Stone wants his players - including a slew of new starters - to understand it won't win any games for them this year.

However, if the Pirates' two quarters of action during Thursday's opening night of the Best of Preps football jamboree at Finley Stadium are any indication, a team that has 18 freshmen among its 45 players is ready to create its own legacy.

"We have a lot of new guys," said Stone, who helped guide the program to its improbable TSSAA Class 1A title in 2021. "We've got some seniors starting, but we've also got a bunch of young guys starting for the first time. We've got a small senior class - 10 or 11 - and we need some of our younger guys to step up and complement those older guys.

"You don't replace a Deandre Kelly, or a Gio Davis or a Reginald or Richard Hunter with one guy. It's usually by committee, and I saw some good signs tonight that we can get there."

South Pittsburg began its night at Finley - the same venue where the Pirates capped last season by rallying past McKenzie, 24-21, in a BlueCross Bowl victory - by outscoring Signal Mountain 7-0 in a 20-minute, clock-running period as 18 new starters (three returning starters did not dress) got their first taste of action. Versatile senior Jayden Mount and junior Racash Kelly both ripped off good runs, while junior quarterback Kamden Wellington showed off his arm on a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jace Stone and his legs on a 38-yard run in the final minute.

The Pirates later tied a more veteran Silverdale Baptist Academy team 7-7, a period in which the Seahawks rolled down the field on the opening possession for a touchdown as senior quarterback Brett Rogers found Cameron Bowen on a 13-yard pass on fourth down.

South Pittsburg responded with a seven-minute touchdown drive as Wellington was 3-for-3 passing, including a 35-yard connection under heavy pressure to a leaping Nas Starkey, before finishing the drive with a 1-yard sneak. The Pirates then shut down Rogers and the Seahawks to secure the draw.

"The guys responded like we expected them to do," Stone said. "We talked on the way over here that everybody knows Silverdale has a great ballclub with a lot of seniors. Brett Rogers is a phenomenal player, and they do a great job with their tempo.

"It was great for us to respond after they converted a couple of long fourth downs and went down and scored on us. It shows a lot about the guys."

(READ MORE: Photos and scores from Thursday night's Best of Preps Jamboree in Chattanooga)

The jamboree, which will include 23 teams in all, continues Friday and Saturday at Finley.

Here's a look at other results from Thursday's jamboree action.

Signal Mountain 14, Lookout Valley 0: Cash Keene was dialed in as he completed all eight of his passes for 119 yards and two scores. The sophomore quarterback threw both of his touchdown passes to senior Collins Payne, who is playing high school football for the first time. Keene delivered a 17-yard fade to the left corner of the end zone to Payne for his first touchdown and another 24-yard score as time expired.

Blake Wolfard added four catches for 67 yards for the Eagles, whose Malik Aljack halted a 13-play Lookout Valley drive with a sack for a turnover on downs.

East Ridge 19, Lookout Valley 0: The Pioneers showcased a talented array of weapons on the ground as Jalen Ellis, Marquell Sails and Jermaine Blackstock all had rushing scores. Ellis displayed great vision, cutting ability and speed on his 61-yard breakaway run to open the scoring, and Sails and T.J. Holmes had several big gains on the ground. East Ridge linebacker Javonte Pullom led the defense and had a big hit on a tackle for loss.

East Ridge 13, Sale Creek 0: Sails opened the period with a 55-yard touchdown run, and Ellis added a 26-yard scoring run in which he bowled over a defender at the 7-yard line. On defense for the Pioneers, Ralph Freeman had an interception, Issiac Scott a sack and Holmes a leaping pass breakup.

Hixson 13, Sale Creek 0: Senior defensive back Jejuan Gillispie sealed the victory for the Wildcats with a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown as the game clock hit zero. Michael Kendricks helped set up Hixson's first scoring drive with a 70-yard touchdown burst on which a late penalty was called. Soon after, Brandon Burke scored a 5-yard touchdown, getting to the front right pylon on a screen pass from Chase Barnard. Nisaiah Fredrick was dominant on the defensive line for the Wildcats as he created consistent pressure and had a tackle for loss.

Hixson 7, Silverdale Baptist 0: Brandon Burke and Michael Kendricks ran hard behind the Wildcats' line to produce damage and score on their first drive when a diving Kendricks reached across the goal line and finished a 5-yard touchdown. Silverdale's Caiden Botts had what might have been the night's best catch when he made a fully outstretched leaping grab down the right sideline for a 25-yard gain.

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