In communities everywhere, time is measured in seasons.
In the South, for many families those seasons do not have equinoxes or solstices. Those seasons are marked by innings and quarters and laps around a swimming pool. One season ends, registration for the next sport rolls around.
For high school athletes who have spent most of their lives on fields and courts and in pools since before they knew about homeroom, never mind hormones, the end can be the crossroads from then to tomorrow. The bridge from what was to what will be.
And tonight, seniors from half the high schools playing playoff football in Tennessee will put up their pads. Their high school careers will be complete, and for many their football careers, and that will be that.
There will be tears. And there will be hugs.
But more than that, there will be the memories cemented in the final chapter of athletic careers that have overlapped lives, forged forever friendships and made families extend beyond names and skin color to a place we all should aspire.
For Signal Mountain's high school — which will open the postseason against York Institute tonight in an improbable hosting role — that journey started years ago, but the heavy lifting of extending the dream demanded perfection six weeks ago.
After a four-game losing streak to start the season, Signal Mountain has rolled off six consecutive wins. Here’s a recap of those wins:
Sept. 14: Signal 28, Loudon 7
Drew Lowry runs for four touchdowns; Signal defense pitches a shutout in the final three quarters.
Sept. 21: Signal 21, East Ridge 18
Lowry runs for two scores and connects with Travion Williams for a TD.
Sept. 28: Signal 28, Brainerd 7
Lowry runs for two scores and Williams hauls in another TD pass; defense allows fewer than 60 first-half yards.
Oct. 11: Signal 49, McMinn Central 6
Dominant from the start, Signal makes quick work of the overmatched Chargers.
Oct. 19: Signal 14, Soddy-Daisy 0
Lowry and Malone Howley account for all the TDs on long scoring passes as Signal gets its first shutout of the season.
Oct. 26: Signal 42, Sweetwater 0
Lowry-to-Howley for two long scores is part of a 35-0 first-half run; defense extends scoreless streak to eight quarters.
Flipping the switch
Signal Mountain started 0-4, a painful beginning that was not entirely unexpected.
"Weeks two to four, those (opposing) teams are something like 28-1," Signal Mountain coach Josh Roberts said Thursday. "After we lost to Whitwell, I told the kids and the parents that we were going to win the next six games and everything was still in front of us."
Roberts' predictions aside, the march toward the postseason started with leadership. And it came from within.
"Coming from the past years, (the 0-4 start) was almost too familiar," Signal senior left tackle Whit Hunt said. "Although we began to improve last year, we all knew what had to be done to have success this year."
Said Drew Lowry: "The last six weeks it's been something we've been waiting for in this program for a long time, especially the guys who were here for the rough couple of years. We've been close for a long time, but it's nice to finally see our hard work pay off."
Lowry has been right in the middle of it.
The athletic senior who has committed to play college baseball at Belmont moved to quarterback in the second half of a 20-13 loss to Red Bank on Aug. 31. Since, Lowry's running ability (693 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns) as well as Signal's depth at receiver with seniors Malone Howley (21 catches, 560 yards and nine touchdowns) and Travion Williams (27 catches, 418, five touchdowns) have allowed the Eagles a duality coaches crave.
It also has given the entire roster a confidence felt on each side of the ball.
"We could be more big-play oriented, to tell you the truth," Roberts said. "But we have found some success with ball control, and that helps the defense. And both kind of feed off each other."
Said Williams, who has been recruited by Austin Peay and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, among others, as a defensive back: "With Drew's success, it has just been motivation (for the defense) to go even harder. Starting out 0-4 was, in my opinion, us figuring out who we were as a team and also how to play with each other, because we have many young guys and first-time players that play on our defense."
The math is clear. In its six-game winning streak, Signal has won by an average score of 30.3-6.3. Only once in the streak has the defense — led by tackling technician Jake Woodlief, who leads the team in tackles and has 4.5 sacks — allowed more than one touchdown.
The strength in numbers has benefited Signal, too, with several basketball players coming back to the football field after a couple of years away.
The bolstered roster, though, needed direction, and the veterans answered when the Eagles were at their lowest.
"It really started with some of the seniors in practice that week after we lost to Whitwell," Roberts said. "Guys like Whit and Drew and Tra started getting on to the younger guys and holding them accountable.
"And those guys responded to that leadership."
Six weeks six years in the making
Like so many of the seniors facing the win-or-be-done reality tonight, Hunt, Lowry and Williams have been playing multiple sports together for multiple years.
"I can remember being on the Green Giants (swim team) and Drew always missed practice for baseball but always won the meets," Hunt said. "Always."
Added Lowry: "I remember always playing against Whit in little league football on the mountain. Once we were friends on the same team in middle school, we would always argue and I would say that his team cheated to win the championship. We still joke about it all the time."
Williams moved to the mountain as those middle school bonds were forming.
"I guess beating Loftis to go 6-0 in middle school was my favorite (with them)," Williams said.
The goals varied as the Big Three — "We also have a group message with us and Drew's mom named 'Big Mamma and the Big Three,'" Williams said — entered their senior season: scholarships, blocking and receiving milestones, no dropped passes, etc.
But universally, the word mentioned most was "wins," and the plateau listed first was a home playoff game.
That box has been checked, but the longtime friends aren't ready to stop the winning or the memory making anytime soon.
"I'm excited to end this year strong and proud of the brotherhood that has formed between me and these guys," Hunt said.
As for Lowry — who Williams said "likes to take his sweet time with any and everything. Whether we are about to go hang out somewhere or getting ready to walk out on the field, Drew is always the last one" — the process has led to production.
And that has led to a belief in the Big Three, the senior class as a whole and all the Eagles soaring at the right time of year.
"I am very confident about the way we've been playing and practicing," Lowry said. "We are putting everything together and have not reached our full potential yet, so I am very confident going into the playoffs."
Contact Jay Greeson at firstname.lastname@example.org and 423-757-6343.