Maryville entered the TSSAA Class 4A football playoffs in the 2000 season with a tough test against the Hixson Wildcats, who were led that year by twin stars Daniel and Josh Bullocks, the future Nebraska Cornhuskers who eventually played in the NFL.
The well-matched pair of 6-4 teams went toe to toe, with the Rebels holding on for a 24-21 victory that ignited the program's run to its first of 13 state championships this century.
Since then, Maryville has been a Goliath in the high school football ranks, going 265-12 (a .957 winning percentage) with no region losses since 2000 and 37 consecutive wins over opponents from the Chattanooga area. The only local programs to truly challenge the Rebels in that span have been the 2006 Brainerd Panthers, who lost 30-26, and the 2009 McMinn County Cherokees, who fell 28-20.
With plenty of playmakers and incredible depth year after year, Maryville has left other teams in awe and undoubtedly led many to wonder what finally beating the Rebels would feel like.
Fellow Region 2-6A programs Bradley Central, Cleveland, McMinn County and Ooltewah hope to have that chance entering what is already an unusual TSSAA season ahead of Friday's kickoff, with some players having already tested positive for the coronavirus and some teams having halted practices and even canceled games.
The Cherokees moved into the state rankings after an incredible 8-0 start last year. Jalen Hunt, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound running back who has committed to Western Carolina ahead of his senior season, made use of great vision and perseverance but benefited from the blocking of a talented offensive line, totaling 1,728 rushing yards and averaging nearly 10 yards per carry.
McMinn's all-time leading rusher, Hunt hopes to spring loose again as his powerful line returns Virginia Tech-committed Bryce Goodner (6-2, 300) along with standouts Cade Hipps (6-2, 275), Bode Patton (6-1, 240) and Garrett Priest (5-10, 260), all of them beasts in the weight room.
"We have really been working hard this offseason to make it the most memorable season yet," said Goodner, who helped Hunt rush for 377 yards in a home victory over Bradley Central that was a part of a memorable 9-2 campaign in 2019. "Especially for us seniors, we are grateful for every snap and second we are able to be around each other. Nothing is promised, and we cherish the relationships we have made and how we have helped turn the program around. We want to have another great season and leave the program in great shape for the future."
Javin Burke, who has committed to Virginia, is perhaps the most explosive playmaker in the region. Bradley Central's dual threat has blazing speed and a cannon of an arm that make him capable of scoring touchdowns in a flurry. He led a 21-point rally against archrival Cleveland last season as he generated 250 yards of offense in the second half and finished with five touchdowns.
The Bears averaged a program record 41 points per game and finished 7-4 overall last year. Coach Damon Floyd's team should be tough to stop with speedster Javon Burke (5-11, 165) — Javin's twin — as a breakout candidate at running back, while Brayden Clark (6-0, 190) and Kannon Hall (5-11, 165) are expected to shine at receiver. Hall led his team in receiving with 825 yards on 38 catches last season, pacing the area at 22 yards per reception.
"We are just as good as we were last year, if not better," said Javin Burke, who threw for 2,152 yards and rushed for 738 last season to go with 33 touchdowns. "Offensively, we have come together and dedicated our whole summer in and out to Bradley football. We want to score as many points as possible, and if that means breaking the record again, I am all for it."
Bradley's starting quarterback will also play safety for a defense that returns nine starters.
"Defensively, we are a lot better," he added. "We have a very solid D-line, and CJ Hardy is a beast. Captain Kins Hooper is our middle linebacker, and he's coming back strong from an ACL injury to fill in all those empty run lanes. I think we will be solid and very athletic in the secondary and can cover any team in the state we go against. If we all do our jobs, we will be fine."
Cleveland running back Tetoe Boyd (5-11, 195) broke out for 1,535 rushing yards last season and has a powerful Division I prospect in Evan Neal (6-4, 330) to run behind again. The Blue Raiders will look for senior quarterback Gage Kinsey (5-11, 170) to produce big numbers with a big target in Kley McGowan (6-4, 185), who is a D-I basketball recruit and will try to make up for the production lost with the graduation of current Samford freshman receiver Robert Flowers.
"We've been waiting for these moments under the Friday night lights for so long," said Kinsey, who has received interest from Carson-Newman. "Football means the world to me and my teammates. I have high goals of myself to be an accurate passer and be the best leader I can possibly be."
Ooltewah returns standout defensive end/roving linebacker Jaden Carmichael, who had 11 tackles for loss and three sacks as a sophomore last year. The Owls' offense will be led by quarterback Fisher Perry (6-1, 190), who made big plays at wide receiver in 2019. Braeden Haynes is one of the top kickers in the state after going 5-for-7 on field-goal attempts and 24-for-25 on PATs last season.
Overall, though, the Owls will be extremely young again and especially at running back, where they are hopeful of uncovering a breakout performer.
Team to beat: While nothing is impossible and there is always a chance someone could knock Maryville from its perch, the Rebels have proven time and time again to be among the nation’s elite in high school football. They seem bound not only to remain atop the region but to make a run at what would be their 14th state title this century.
Watch out for: Bradley Central returns a natural at linebacker in Kins Hooper, while fellow senior Javin Burke — a versatile star on offense who has committed to Virginia — will also play on defense, where the Bears struggled last season.
Best game: All eyes will be on Bradley Central’s visit to rival Cleveland on Oct. 1. Cleveland led by 21 points at halftime of last year’s meeting before the host Bears rallied to win 37-35 on a field goal in the final seconds, so the Blue Raiders should be extra motivated.
Dream schedule: Cleveland hopes to have a breakthrough season in Marty Wheeler’s second year as head coach. Winning home games against Bradley Central and McMinn County (Oct. 16) would be big steps toward that.
Nightmare schedule: Ooltewah’s road schedule could keep a coach up at night. The Owls will be heavy underdogs at Red Bank, McMinn County, Bradley Central, Rhea County and Maryville.
Players to watch: Maryville is young on offense but expects big things out of junior quarterback Carson Jones and a trio of sophomores: running backs Cannon Johnson and Noah Vaughn and wide receiver Markel Fortenberry. McMinn County players have raved about sophomore quarterback Jayden Miller, who can make plays with his arms and legs. Ooltewah running back Tacoda Jones appears to have a bright future, and Cleveland newcomer Destun Thomas gives his team a boost in the passing game.