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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg football coach Vic Grider gives a play call to quarterback Brayden Sanders during a home game against Meigs County on Oct. 11.
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South Pittsburg tops Meigs County

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SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — The only thing Ronto Tipton couldn't do Friday night was hold back an ear-to-ear grin.

After a mostly frustrating start to his senior football season while hobbled by injuries, South Pittsburg's all-state athlete was finally healthy enough to showcase his talents.

And he showed out in front of a packed house at Beene Stadium as the Chattanooga area's two top-ranked small-shool teams battled. Contributing in every phase of the game, Tipton helped guide Class 1A's No. 1-ranked Pirates to a 27-16 win over 2A's second-ranked Meigs County, snapping the Tigers' 33-game regular-season winning streak that dated to 2016.

"This was my first game to be able to play both ways, and it felt great to be back out there," said Tipton, who finished with eight carries for 124 yards and one touchdown, returned a punt 28 yards to set up another score and caught a 50-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to put his team in control.

"I saw the throw and I saw the defender and I just went to make a play," explained Tipton, who was also in on six tackles. "This is going to help us down the road when we see good teams, because that was the best team we've seen so far and we beat them. That should give us a lot of confidence that we can play with anybody."

South Pittsburg (6-0) scored first, taking its second possession 77 yards in eight plays, capped by a 1-yard run by Hunter Frame. The Pirates extended their lead on the next series, when Tipton scored on a 4-yard run that followed his 28-yard punt return.

The game's momentum swung late in the first half when the Tigers recovered a fumble and marched 55 yards to pull within 13-8 on Aaron Swafford's 5-yard touchdown run and 2-point run.

The Pirates took back momentum in the third quarter, though, thanks to a defense that stopped Meigs County on downs at the South Pittsburg 4, and on the Tigers' next offensive series, linebacker J.J. Beene intercepted a pass at his own 15.

"They got the two stops when they needed them, and we couldn't get the stop on them when it was close," Tigers coach Jason Fitzgerald said. "But hey, that's going to make us better and it'll make them better because it was a heck of a game by two good teams."

After its second stop, South Pittsburg drove 85 yards in six plays, with Tipton hauling in the 50-yard touchdown pass from Brayden Sanders to extend the lead to 21-8.

Meigs County (6-1) countered with a gutsy 11-play, 80-yard drive of its own, pulling within 21-16 on Swafford's 6-yard run and 2-point pass to Jackson Fritts with 7:15 remaining. But after a 35-yard kickoff return by DeAndre Kelly, the Pirates put the game away with a gut-check drive of their own, covering 45 yards in seven plays and capped by Kelly scoring on a 10-yard run with 3:36 to go.

The Pirates outgained Meigs County 326-285 in total yards. Swafford, last season's 2A Mr. Football Back of the Year and a Naval Academy commitment, finished with 114 yards rushing and 82 passing and accounted for all of his team's points.

"I'm really proud of how we gutted this one out," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "We had some guys who were exhausted at times, but we kept finding a way. I said before the game that we'd find out whether we've got what it takes to get to where we want to be, and I think we found out tonight we do have what it takes.

"We felt like we could hang our hat on our defense because they seem to come up with big plays every time we get in a situation where we need one. Those two stops in the third quarter were huge, and Ronto really looked like a veteran all-state-caliber guy. When the game is on the line you want that guy to have the ball in his hands, and he showed why tonight."

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

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