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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ South Pittsburg's Javien Beene (20) drops Gordonsville Tyler Pemberton (16) for a loss. The South Pittsburg Pirates hosted the Gordonsville Tigers in the quarter finials of the TSSAA Class A football championships on November 22, 2019.
some text Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ South Pittsburg's Jamal Allen (24) and Jared Stone (59) stop Marion's Jack Tillman (10) for a loss. The South Pittsburg Pirates visited the Marion County Warriors in a TSSAA rivalry game on September 13, 2019.

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TSSAA top 10 playoff wins leaders

Maryville 126-23 playoff record (16 state titles)

Alcoa 114-15 (17 state titles)

Brentwood Academy 102-29 (14 state titles)

Trousdale County 85-29 (9 state titles)

Milan 85-37 (4 state titles)

South Pittsburg 81-30 (5 state titles)

Farragut 74-32 (1 state title)

Oak Ridge 70-33 (4 state titles)

Riverdale 67-29 (4 state titles)

Marion County 61-34 (4 state titles)

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TSSAA Class 1A semifinal

South Pittsburg (12-0) at Greenback (11-2), 7

Class 2A semifinal

Trousdale County (11-1) at Meigs County (12-1), 7

GHSA Class AAA quarterfinal

North Murray (11-1) at Jenkins (11-1), 7:30

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — Even the grass on the field is a reminder of what's at stake. With each passing week that South Pittsburg's football team has advanced deeper into the Class 1A playoffs, the Bermuda grass on the Beene Stadium field has progressively turned from lush green to a golden tint.

Although the Pirates have not brought home a state championship gold ball in nearly a decade, they are once again just one win from returning to the BlueCross Bowl and playing in the program's 12th title game.

Standing in the way tonight will be longtime nemesis Greenback, which has played in three of the last four championship games, including twice after beating South Pittsburg in the semifinals.

For the top-ranked Pirates (12-0) to get past fourth-ranked Greenback (11-2) on the road, they will rely on one of the stingiest defenses in program history to slow the state's top passing offense.

"We don't necessarily have a star at every position, but we're sound everywhere," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "So much of defense is about a mindset. For years we've won a lot of games with flashy offensive players, but we're not going to run off and leave people with burners on that side of the ball this year.

"We've developed the mindset of being a tough, hard-nosed defense, and that's become this team's identity so far. If we get to where we want to be at the end, it's going to be because of our defense."

Through South Pittsburg's first 12 games opponents have run 481 snaps, averaging a measly 3.2 yards per play — including barely 2 yards per rush attempt. The starting defensive unit has given up just 30 points so far with Meigs County (16) the only team to score more than once on the Pirates starters.

In South Pittsburg's three playoff games, 22 of 25 opponents' possessions have gone for no score, and last week Gordonsville went three-and-out on its first eight possessions.

Fans in this town — most notable for being the home of the Lodge skillet manufacturing plant — have nicknamed their defense the Cast Iron Curtain.

Defensive coordinator Shawn Peek prefers another description.

"Fast and violent," said Peek, whose unit has allowed playoff opponents to convert just 20 percent of their third downs into firsts. "We're strong up front, got some linebackers who are thumpers and our safeties can run with anybody. The biggest thing is we're a mature group that has played in a lot of big games, so everybody understands their role and does their job."

But tonight the Pirates will face an offense unlike any they have seen this season. Since season-opening road losses at 3A Loudon and 2A Meigs County (both also in state semifinals), Greenback has outscored its last 11 opponents by an average of 46-7.

The Cherokees offense is averaging 381 yards per game, led by senior quarterback Braden Carnes, who leads the state with 3,635 passing yards and 49 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Senior receiver Holden Willis, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound Mr. Football finalist, has more than 1,500 receiving yards and has tied the state's single-season record with 26 TD catches, while two other Cherokees have more than 500 receiving yards.

"We haven't seen anything like this bunch since back in the summer in 7-on-7 camps," Peek said. "They stretch you vertically and have some guys you have to cover all over the field. They can hurt your feelings in a hurry.

"It's still football, but it's almost like we're playing a different game than we have all year."

The Pirates, who have won 10 games this season by the state's 35-point mercy rule, have lost to the eventual state champion each of the last two seasons, including last year when they led Whitwell by 12 with less than five minutes remaining before eventually falling in double overtime.

Getting turned away after being so close to a return trip to the title game has haunted a team that has outscored opponents an average of 51-8 this season.

"We've still got a bad taste from the way our season ended last year, and we don't want to feel that way again," said junior linebacker J.J. Beene, who leads the team in tackles as well as tackles for loss and is a heat-seeking missile on special teams. "What we learned last year is to never relax. Even if you're up, you have to keep playing hard, because the other team is going to keep coming this time of year. You have to fight on every play and win every quarter until the game is over.

"Coach Peek spends so much time on film and at practice to have us prepared, we all just want to match his dedication and make him proud. We feel like if we do our job then we're going to have a better ending to this season."

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

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