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Staff drawing by Mark Weidmer / Clockwise from top left, Red Bank's Lucas Brown, McCallie's B.J. Harris, Baylor's Elijah Howard, South Pittsburg's Ronto Tipton, Meigs County's Aaron Swafford and Chattanooga Christian's Jamichael Baxter will help lead the charge as their teams pursue football state titles.

Small schools, big dreams.

As the chase for BlueCross Bowl state championships begins this weekend across Tennessee, most of the teams from the Chattanooga area with the best chance of contending compete in the smaller classifications.

With the exception of Baylor and McCallie in Division II-AAA, the area teams expected to make the deepest run into the postseason are South Pittsburg (Class 1A), Meigs County (2A), Red Bank (3A) and Chattanooga Christian and Boyd Buchanan in DII-AA. Tyner could be a dangerous opponent for anyone in 2A, although the Rams are likely to face second-ranked Trousdale County — which blasted the Rams 35-0 last year — in the second round.

In the 50 years of the TSSAA's state playoff format, 39 area teams have made 50 appearances in a title game, with 13 of those coming in the past decade. Area teams have played for championships in all but two of the nine classifications (6A and DII-A) and won a total of 20 titles, with the crowning achievement for the area coming in 1994, when three of the five champions were Cleveland (4A), Marion County (3A) and South Pittsburg (1A).

some text Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Cleveland's Leo Palelei is gang-tackled by Red Bank defenders during the Best of Preps jamboree on Aug. 17 at Finley Stadium.

When the DII-AAA portion of the playoffs begins next week, No. 1 McCallie and No. 2 Baylor will open as the top seeds on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning they could meet for the state title on Dec. 5 at Tennessee Tech.

Here's a look at Friday night's first-round matchups for area teams.

 

Class 1A

Jo Byrns (2-8) at South Pittsburg (9-0): The top-ranked South Pittsburg Pirates haven't lost a first-round game since 2006. These teams met in the 2010 title game, with South Pittsburg rolling to a 41-6 win. The Pirates, who have beaten opponents by an average score of 51-8 this year, have lost in either the semifinals or to the eventual state champion each of the past three seasons.

Gordonsville (3-7) at Copper Basin (6-4): Copper Basin junior Bryson Grabowski already owns the Cougars' single-season record for passing yards with 2,077 so far this year. This will be Copper Basin's first home playoff game since a second-round matchup in 2014, which was also the Cougars' most recent postseason win.

Sale Creek (4-6) at Clay County (7-3): The Panthers are making their second postseason appearance and will travel to face a team with all of its losses by single digits.

Whitwell (2-8) at Monterey (10-0): Fourth-ranked Monterey is enjoying the program's best season, but the Wildcats are just 2-21 all-time in the playoffs.

 

Class 2A

Westmoreland (5-5) at Tyner (7-3): This will be the first time these teams have met since 2008, a one-point win by Westmoreland. Two of Tyner's losses this year were to teams with realistic title aspirations — 3A's top-ranked Alcoa and DII-AAA's Baylor.

East Robertson (5-5) at Bledsoe County (7-3): Bledsoe hasn't advanced past the first round in six seasons.

Marion County (2-8) at Trousdale County (8-1): This is the third straight year these teams have met in the playoffs — they've split the previous two meetings. The Yellow Jackets have held seven of nine opponents to single-digit scoring.

Happy Valley (7-3) at Meigs County (9-1): Meigs has moved closer to the title game each of the past three seasons — falling by three points in the second round in 2016, by one in the 2017 quarterfinals and by three in last year's semifinals. The Tigers' expectations are to take the final step this year.

 

Class 3A

Sequatchie County (6-4) at Red Bank (8-1): This will be the third consecutive year these teams have met in the playoffs, with Red Bank winning 24-21 last year and 21-13 in 2017.

"This week we'll preach the same message as we have all year," said Red Bank coach Chris Brown, whose Lions are coming off their first loss, a defeat that cost them the Region 3 title. "We don't celebrate losing and we're not proud of what happened, but in some regards it was a gift because we were shown our faults that other teams will try to go after, and that's where we can focus our attention to get better."

Signal Mountain (4-6) at Upperman (9-1): Upperman is led by former Sequatchie County coach Adam Caine, who is 22-2 in two seasons in Baxter and last year guided the Bees to the semifinals for only the third time in program history.

 

Class 4A

Sullivan South (5-5) at East Hamilton (7-3): This will be the Hurricanes' first home playoff game since 2013. After finishing with a losing record each of the previous three years, they have made an impressive turnaround in Grant Reynolds' first season as head coach. Haynes Eller is one of the area's leading passers (1,698 yards).

some text Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Howard coach John Starr gives the play to Kerrick Thorne during last Friday's game at East Hamilton.

Howard (7-3) at Greeneville (8-2): The host Green Devils are the two-time reigning state champs and have scored at least 30 points eight times this season. The Hustlin' Tigers defense has 48 tackles for loss and 36 takeaways — including 20 interceptions, with Eric Johnson and Javion Robinson leading with five each — and have given up an average of just 14 points per game.

East Ridge (6-4) at Elizabethton (10-0): The host Cyclones are led by sophomore Bryson Rollins, a Mr. Football semifinalist who has thrown for 1,459 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 602 yards and 10 scores.

 

Class 5A

Oak Ridge (5-5) at Soddy-Daisy (6-4): Not only is this a rematch of a second-round meeting from 2018, it's the third straight year these teams have faced off in the postseason and the fifth time in six years. Oak Ridge has won the past four meetings. After not winning a region championship for 21 years, Soddy-Daisy's Trojans have won back-to-back league titles.

some text Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Soddy-Daisy's Hayden Maynor heads around left end during a home game against Bradley Central on Oct. 24.

Knoxville Fulton (3-7) at Rhea County (8-2): The host Eagles' biggest struggle this year has been against teams with speed — most notably their 36-0 loss to Red Bank — and that's the one thing Fulton always has. Rhea's season ended in the first round the past two years.

Walker Valley (4-6) at Knoxville West (9-1): Walker Valley went 1-19 the previous two seasons, but first-year head coach Drew Akins has done an amazing job of turning things around and getting the Mustangs back in the playoffs after a two-year absence. West's defense is led by a pair of Arkansas-committed standouts — linebacker Drew Francis and end Tyrece Edwards.

 

Class 6A

Bradley Central (7-3) at Farragut (5-5): This is a rematch of their season-opening meeting, a seven-point Farragut win. But the Bears are as athletic as any team in the Chattanooga area, led by junior quarterback Javin Burke's 2,587 total yards and 30 TDs and classmate Tray Curry, who has 599 yards rushing and 527 receiving.

Bearden (4-6) at McMinn County (9-1): It's a rematch from five weeks ago, when McMinn County — now looking for its first postseason win since 2012 — won 37-13.

 

Division II-A

Grace Academy (3-6) at USJ (7-3): Each of University School of Jackson's losses were to state-ranked opponents, and all but two of its wins were by at least 23 points.

 

Division II-AA

CAK (8-2) at Chattanooga Christian (6-3): The Chargers won 14-3 at Christian Academy of Knoxville in late September, but now they get to host a playoff game for the first time in program history.

Lipscomb Academy (5-5) at Boyd Buchanan (8-2): Lipscomb comes in on a three-game losing skid, while the Buccaneers want to erase the memory of last week's lopsided loss to Knoxville Grace. Boyd Buchanan can rely heavily on Mr. Football semifinalist Eli Morris, who has compiled more than 2,600 total yards.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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