The only thing more impressive than the McCallie football team's return to the TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship game is the path it has taken there.
The Blue Tornado won their second straight road playoff game Friday night, this time knocking off top-ranked and previously unbeaten Brentwood Academy 28-18 in a semifinal game.
"We feel real comfortable coming here to play for whatever reason," said McCallie coach Ralph Potter, whose team has won three straight at BA. "The trip we made to Memphis last week for the first playoff game (against Christian Brothers) really is tough, because it just takes a toll. We got back home around 5 a.m., but our kids came back rededicated this week at practice to get ready for this one."
McCallie (8-3), which earned the second state championship in program history last season, will have a week off before facing Memphis University School (8-2) in the BlueCross Bowl on Dec. 3 at Tennessee Tech University.
McCallie opened Friday's game with a time-consuming drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown run by B.J. Harris, who was named a Tennessee Titans Mr. Football finalist earlier in the week.
"That drive took more than seven minutes off the clock and really set the tone for us," Potter said. "I'm just really proud of the way our guys played on both sides of the ball."
The Blue Tornado limited the Eagles to just 55 rushing yards and harassed quarterback Tayler Montiel all night. Montiel, who had thrown for more than 350 yards against McCallie in a regular-season matchup won by BA, managed just 141 on 17-of-35 passing and was intercepted. Each team had 59 offensive plays, with McCallie finishing with a slight advantage in total yards, 200-196.
With McCallie holding a 14-10 advantage to begin the second half, a short touchdown run by Harris was followed by a 10-yard scoring reception by Eric Rivers to extend the lead to 28-10.
Harris finished with 100 rushing yards on 28 carries, while Nic Robinson and Aaron Crowder each had seven tackles and a sack for the McCallie defense.
"We got good pressure on their quarterback all game long, and when you add Eric Rivers back to our lineup, he really makes us a different team on both sides," Potter said. "He does so much for us offensively, even little things that might go unnoticed, but he really does change the game in a profound way.
"The look on our kids' faces after the game, that's what makes it special to me. We've fought through a lot this season to earn the chance to get back and play for it all again."
South Pittsburg 37, Gordonsville 7: For the second straight week, Class 1A's top-ranked Pirates were dominant in the second half after struggling somewhat to begin the game.
After falling behind 7-0 late in the first quarter, South Pittsburg wasted no time in answering as J.J. Beene returned the ensuing kickoff 56 yards inside the Gordonsville 10 and Hunter Frame scored one play later to even the score.
From that point, the Pirates' defense limited the Tigers, while the South Pittsburg ground game began to physically wear down a defense that had allowed more than 14 points just once this season.
The Pirates (12-1) gained 374 yards on 37 rushes, while the defense limited Gordsonville to 87 yards on 27 carries.
De'Andre Kelly's 49-yard scoring spring with 3:26 to go before halftime put the Pirates ahead for good in the quarterfinal matchup at Gordonsville.
"The coaches kept telling us to keep punching, and the line did a great job blocking for us to give us room to run," said Kelly, who missed six games during the regular season with an injury but returned in the first round and has rushed for 100-yard plus yards in all three playoff games, including 148 on Friday.
"It feels real good to be back healthy and be able to show what I can do."
The win advances South Pittsburg to the semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons, where it will host Coalfield (12-0), which whipped Oliver Springs 36-0.
Clinging to the seven-point lead to begin the second half, South Pittsburg stuffed the Tigers three-and-out on the opening possession of the third quarter, and on its second offensive snap that followed, Frame broke loose for a 48-yard touchdown run that finally gave the visitors some breathing room.
Frame, who was named a Mr. Football finalist earlier in the week, had his second straight game of 200-plus rushing yards, finishing with 208 on 22 carries with a pair of scores.
"We had to clean up the dumb penalties that had cost us in the first half, but we knew we've got the lineman and the skill players to dominate, and that's what we did in the second half," said Beene, who led the Pirates in tackles. "We're a senior-oriented team, so the older guys really stepped up and took charge, and once we got the momentum, we were good."
Freshman Cooper Keown booted a 25-yard field goal to push the lead to 24-7, and after holding Gordonsville (9-3) on downs at their 16, the Pirates put the game away when Kelly sprinted 66 yards to the end zone. Frame added a 71-yard run to the Tigers' 4, and two plays later Kelly added his third score of the night, this one from 2 yards.
"It's a shame it has to come to pushing our guys' buttons at halftime to get them to play better, but we've also got a lot of guys in key positions who haven't been in this type playoff environment, so I really thought they've answered the call in the second half the last two weeks," South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider said.
"In a game like this, with what was on the line, I'm smart enough to know to give the ball to our best players and let them go win the game for us, and I'm really proud of the way DeDe has stepped up since coming back off the injury. All that matters this time of year is advancing, and we had a lot of older guys who made sure we got that done."