This story was updated at 12:40 p.m. on Nov. 27, 2020, to correct Alcoa's record to 12-1 instead of 13-0.
While many others are at home watching football on television this week, Red Bank senior Jadon High and his teammates have been preparing for their biggest game yet.
The Lions' road to the TSSAA Class 3A state semifinals has been filled with adversity and tested their mental toughness. From missing weeks of practices and three games due to COVID-19 quarantines, to injuries to key players, to in-game challenges, coach Chris Brown's team has found a way to answer and build a 10-0 record.
And now Red Bank will attempt to send shockwaves across the state.
The Lions are at home for their semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday, but the visitor is Alcoa, a program that is 12-1 and has allowed an average of just 4.3 points per game this season as it tries to add its sixth straight state title, 14th in a span of 17 seasons and 19th overall.
"This season has made us hungrier, and we realize nothing is ever promised," High said. "So when we go out there, we are going to empty the tank and give it everything we've got. To still be playing means everything to us. We have been chasing a state championship ring since the moment we got here. We want to win this game for each other and our community."
The Lions are in the semifinals for just the fourth time in program history and for the first time under Brown, who is 31-3 overall at Red Bank.
While legendary coach Gary Rankin's Tornadoes are loaded with talent, Red Bank junior quarterback Joseph Blackmon — who has excelled in his first year taking over the offense after the graduation of Madox Wilkey, the program's all-time leading passer — has the ultimate confidence in those around him.
"Alcoa is really talented, but we are, too," said Blackmon, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes and rushed for eight scores this year. "I love my linemen, running backs and receivers. We have learned how to all help each other out over the course of this season and have all have become mentally stronger, too."
The Lions know they will be helped against Alcoa if they can move the ball on the ground consistently. The Lions have averaged 271 yards per game behind senior running back Lumiere Strickland (1,194 yards, 12 touchdowns), who has averaged nearly 10 yards per carry.
Leading a defensive charge for the Lions, who have allowed just 9.7 points per game, has been a dominant edge presence provided by seniors Cameron Bell (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and High (6-2, 210).
The two speedy and physical ends with enormous wingspans have a combined 28 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and 33 quarterback pressures in just 17 combined games. High has impressed since coming back earlier this season from a two-week absence due to a wrist fracture, sparking the defense with two sacks in the quarterfinal win against Loudon last week, when senior linebacker Silas Garibay (54 tackles, 11 for loss) and Bell (39 tackles, 18 for loss, 10 sacks) also stood out.
"Jadon has always been a high motor and high energy guy for us," Brown said. "He is a very special pass rusher, but he has also become even more physical inside the tackle box. He has really grown into a complete defensive line player for us and someone you can count on to give it all he's got every day."
In addition to having their ends create pressure, Red Bank will need a push in the middle from Delmontae Gustus and BJ Ragland against a tough Alcoa offensive line.
High said it's important to keep his opponents guessing on his rush patterns and to be able to establish the upper hand as the game goes along. The defensive line's pressure has helped result in 14 interceptions for a Red Bank secondary in which junior Josh Blackmon has impressed with eight pass deflections, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
"We are really well coached and have to go out there and execute. We are ready to battle for all four quarters," said High, who has 10 tackles for loss and eight sacks in as many games. "We are experienced and have a lot of game reps over the years. We are not going to be intimidated. I love playing on the other side of Cam, and we fuel one another. Everybody on this team loves one another and doesn't want to stop playing."
In Class 3A's other game Friday, Milan (11-1) hosts Pearl-Cohn (8-0). The semifinal winners will meet with the title at stake in the BlueCross Bowl on Dec. 4 at Tennessee Tech.
The Lions, of course, want to be in Cookeville — to compete, not to watch.
"These guys all appreciate each other so much and have become really close this year," Brown said. "They love to play together and want to make a state championship appearance. When it's all said and done, they will go down as one of the most resilient teams to ever play, I truly believe that. We hope all 2,200 fans that are allowed are here Friday night."