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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie football players Thomas Pilon (97), Aaron Crowder (17) and Austin Breedlove (6) carry the gold ball trophy to their waiting teammates Thursday night at Finley Stadium. McCallie beat Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy 28-7 to win the TSSAA Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl, completing an undefeated season and wrapping up the program's third straight state championship.

For more BlueCross Bowl coverage from the Times Free Press, read more here.

McCallie offensive coordinator Joel Bradford had the general game plan figured out long before the Blue Tornado ran onto Finley Stadium's Davenport Field on Thursday night against Montgomery Bell Academy in the BlueCross Bowl state title game for TSSAA Division II-AAA.

"We've got to go attack," was Bradford's message to the offense. "We're not playing it safe."

What he wasn't so sure of, however, was the first play he'd call to attack the Big Red defense.

In the end, it didn't matter. Bradford's offense piled up 359 yards (187 rushing, 172 passing), head coach Ralph Potter's defense held the Big Red to 215 yards, and it all worked well enough to deliver the Blue Tornado its third straight state title by a 28-7 final score. For trivia buffs, that also just happened to be the same score McCallie beat MBA by in the 2019 final.

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Division II-AAA Blue Cross Bowl: McCallie vs. MBA

Or as a TSSAA official proclaimed in presenting the undefeated champions the handsome trophy at game's end: "Your back-to-back-to-BACK State Champs — the Blue Tornado of McCallie."

This was hardly unexpected anywhere outside the halls of MBA. Of the Blue Tornado's 13 wins this year, against zero defeats, all but three wound up being by double figures and six were by 31 or more points.

"It's unbelievable," Potter said after winning his fourth state title total as head coach for his alma mater and third straight.

He acknowledged Thursday that after winning the 2019 title, he knew "that we had a good core, a good nucleus coming back. And that group established a really good culture for us."

A lot of that nucleus appeared to graduate last year: John David Tessmann, Austin and Jack Gentle, Jackson Burns, the seemingly irreplaceable Eric Rivers, to name but five. Yet when this fall arrived it was crystal clear that this team had reloaded with a couple of Canadians, had grown a year older, and was welcoming back its raging bull of a defensive tackle, James Howard, after he missed most of last year with a knee injury.

How important did Potter believe Howard was to the defense in this game?

"If for some reason he couldn't play," Potter said earlier in the week, "I think you could add 100 yards rushing and 10 points to the other team's total. He's that good."

As if on cue, the 275-pound Howard recorded two tackles for losses and had gifted MBA junior quarterback Marcel Reed — who's already being recruited hard by Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — running for his life most of the night.

Said Howard afterward: "For me personally, this is everything. The culmination of my entire football career. I came here from East Hamilton. It hasn't always been easy. But McCallie is like home now. I love these guys. I love Coach Potter. He spends every waking minute thinking of ways to help us win. He's a football machine. With the guys we've got coming back, we can absolutely win this again next year."

It is a scary thought for the rest of DII-AAA, but not without reason. Over these past three seasons and three championships, no one's come closer than 21 points to the Blue Tornado in the championship games. Memphis University School fell 44-0 in 2020.

An even scarier thought from this night: Had it not lost two fumbles and missed two short field goals in the opening half, McCallie could easily have led 28-0 at halftime. In the second half, without the turnovers, the Blue Tornado's defense never let MBA within 18 yards of the end zone, and that didn't come until four minutes remained on the clock.

So now it's done, the three-peat they've all talked about since last year's postseason football banquet. Senior quarterback William Riddle was named MVP of the game after throwing two touchdown passes and no interceptions. The remarkable Canadian Xavier Gaillardetz caught one of those touchdowns and finished with 117 yards. His countryman Kenzy Paul caught Riddle's other score and also picked off a pass. The running back duo of Tario Price (114 yards) and Damian Scott (51 yards) scored one touchdown each.

Potter said he will celebrate this one has he does every McCallie win: He and his wife will head to Maple Street Biscuit Company for the chicken and waffles.

"I'd go tomorrow, but we've got school," Potter said.

Asked the one constant in this three-peat, Potter instantly said, "Aaron Crowder."

Told this, the standout linebacker said something that sounds like the chance for a four-peat is more realistic than anyone other than McCallie fans may want to believe.

"When I was a sophomore, the older guys took me under their wing," Crowder said. "The other seniors and I have tried to do the same with this year's freshmen, sophomores and junors."

He paused, smiled, then said, "That Blue Line is going to go on forever."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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