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SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — It was somewhere along the 2,600-foot descent from Roan Mountain after last Friday's dramatic semifinal win that reality finally set in. Four-hour bus rides through the frigid night and early morning air will give a person plenty of time to reflect.
The wearisome 550 round-trip miles the South Pittsburg football team covered to face Cloudland High School pale in comparison to the months-long winding path that veered far off course before eventually leading back to this week's BlueCross Bowl.
"The resiliency of these players is just unbelievable," Pirates co-head coach and athletic director Heath Grider said. "Not just to not quit when a lot of people would have, but to give us coaches a chance to make changes and trust us, then to persevere and do something that nobody outside of our locker room really thought was possible.
"It's been a testament to this group of kids, the staff and the community for all rising up and meeting a lot of challenges that probably should've broken the team. Win or lose this game, these kids have already proven a lot about their character."
Friday’s BlueCross Bowl Schedule
At Finley Stadium
Class 3A: Alcoa (12-1) vs. East Nashville (10-4), 11 a.m.
Class 1A: South Pittsburg (10-2) vs. McKenzie (14-0), 3 p.m.
Class 5A: Powell (12-2) vs. Page (13-1), 7 p.m.
'WE WERE SHOOK'
This is a town with the same number of state championship trophies, five, as it has traffic lights. The Pirates — who are the only program in Tennessee, regardless of classification, to have played for a championship in all seven decades the TSSAA has had a playoff system — are back in the Class 1A title game for a second straight season and the 13th time overall.
During one 44-year span, the program had just three head coaches, and each won at least one state title. But at a place defined by consistency, this has been a year littered with uncertainty as South Pittsburg has overcome a laundry list of bona fide stumbling blocks that began in March and continued throughout the season.
Shortly after the resignation of the legendary Vic Grider, who won 81% of the games he coached at his alma mater and was part of four state championship and three runner-up staffs, the real ambivalence began.
Two weeks later, the TSSAA placed the program on probation for two years because a booster club member provided improper benefits by paying the rent of a player's family. That player, three-star senior defensive lineman Gio Davis — who has scholarship offers from Arizona State, Ole Miss and Tennessee, Arizona State among others — was originally ruled ineligible for one calendar year.
The ruling did not make the Pirates ineligible for the playoffs, however, and seven days later the TSSAA granted the school's hardship request, clearing Davis to play this season after all.
On the first weekend in April, South Pittsburg graduate Chris Jones, who had spent 25 of his 29 years as a coach at the collegiate and professional levels, was hired as head coach of the Pirates. After just nine days on the job, Jones announced he was canceling the bitter series with cross-county rival Marion County, then added nationally ranked and 2020 Class 6A champion Oakland to the schedule, as well as North Jackson, a nearby Alabama 4A program.
After opening the season with a 35-7 win at Sequatchie County, the Pirates dealt with a three-week stretch in which games were canceled due to a COVID-19 surge across the county. Not only was the team not allowed to play, but it could not even practice or meet to work out due to the school system's coronavirus policy.
On the Monday the Pirates were set to return to practice in preparation for their first region game against Whitwell, Jones stunned the community by announcing he was resigning to accept an offer to return to the Canadian Football League, where he would join the Toronto Argonauts' defensive staff.
"We were shook at first," senior receiver Reginald Hunter said. "But then all us seniors got together and talked about how nobody was going to feel sorry for us, so we had to just keep working and go compete every Friday.
"We had a different mindset after all that happened. We felt like we were doubted, like we had a point to prove to everyone. That's how we've played ever since."
Needing to move swiftly to stabilize a shaky situation, first-year principal Paige Hill sought to clean up the mess by turning to a pair of longtime assistants who had also worn the uniform as players for the Pirates. Wes Stone, a member of Jones' staff with 17 years experience as an assistant, was named co-head coach with Heath Grider, who had worked as an assistant for 24 years but stepped away from coaching prior to the beginning of the school year to focus on his administrative duties as assistant principal and athletic director.
STEADYING THE SHIP
If there is a family as synonymous with Pirates football as the Griders, it is the Stones. Wes Stone's father was on South Pittsburg's first state title team in 1969. Wes was an offensive lineman on the 1994 championship team, his brother was a linebacker on the 1999 title team and his three older sons have all played in state championship games.
Stone would be in charge of daily practice preparation and call the offense, while Grider, out of a sense of loyalty to the program his late father and older brother had built, agreed to oversee the defense.
"We were a fragile football team," said Stone, whose coaching difficulties were compounded by the fact he works at Hamilton County's Washington Alternative Learning Center, which means he has a 45-minute drive for practice each day.
"We were not very good at that time, and it showed on the field," Stone continued. "When all of that happened, there were a lot of people outside of our community who expected this program to fail. They thought we were in chaos, and I know there were some that were hoping we would fall.
"I took it as a personal challenge to make sure this program proved to all of those people that South Pittsburg football is bigger than one person and we weren't going anywhere."
As Stone adjusted to calling an inherited offense he was unfamiliar with and Grider completely overhauled the defense, the first three weeks after the coaching turmoil were the toughest. The Pirates could scratch out only a 14-0 halftime lead over Whitwell before eventually pulling away, then followed by falling behind 20-0 at North Jackson before a miraculous fourth-quarter rally was capped by a 62-yard reverse pass with just 44 seconds remaining for a one-point win.
As the staff built trust with the players, an identity was formed and the Pirates began gaining confidence, scoring at least 42 points in six of seven games during one stretch. But keeping with the season's tumultuous theme, in the days leading up to the team's second-round playoff game, one assistant coach was dismissed from the staff and another quit.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, South Pittsburg's defense gave up a total of just 99 rushing yards, while Stone utilized everything from calling a reverse that paid off with a critical fourth-down conversion to executing surprise onside kicks that led to momentum-shifting touchdowns in both the quarterfinals and semis.
With the temperature hovering in the mid-20s last Friday night in Roan Mountain, the Cloudland Highlanders appeared ready to put South Pittsburg's season on ice, leading 14-0 late in the second quarter and by eight in the fourth. But much as they have throughout a turbulent season, the Pirates overcame the odds to find a way to keep going. It began with a game-altering fourth-down stop at their 4-yard line, followed by a 16-0 scoring run in the final nine minutes to advance.
"Every time people think we're done, we steady the ship and salvage the season," Grider said. "There are people outside of here who wanted it to, but it didn't crumble.
"There's no doubt about it, Wes has done a tremendous job. And the players, I remember telling them earlier in the season that we had a lot of talented individuals, but we didn't really have a team. Maybe they took that as a challenge."
WORK TO BE DONE
When the team bus rolled back into town shortly after 2 a.m. last Saturday, police car lights flashed and sirens wailed to alert the sleeping town that the Pirates were home.
Just before 8:30 a.m. and with only three hours of sleep behind him, Stone unlocked the field house doors, sat his coffee on a table and began watching video of a McKenzie team that has beaten two state champions from 2020 (first eliminating 1A champ Fayetteville in the quarterfinals, then holding off three-time reigning 2A champ Peabody — which had also dropped down in classification this fall) to reach the title game.
The Rebels (14-0) are the next challenge for the Pirates (10-2), but Friday's 3 p.m. Class 1A BlueCross Bowl at Finley Stadium will also provide South Pittsburg one final chance to prove doubters wrong.
"When I was asked to help take over, I knew our kids had trust issues because their coach had just left them," Stone said. "I told them they would see they could trust me because I would be here to work as hard as I could, every day, to make sure their season got to end where it deserved to be, and that's in Chattanooga.
"This is my school, and I know how important the program is to this community, so it's a pretty good feeling knowing we're still one of the only teams still playing with a chance to win it all again."
BEST OF THE BEST
The top 10 programs in TSSAA playoff history by wins:
1. Maryville, 133-25 playoff record (17 state titles)
2. Alcoa, 125-15 (19 titles)
3. Brentwood Academy, 106-31 (14 titles)
4. Trousdale County, 91-32 (nine titles)
5. South Pittsburg, 89-32 (five titles)
6. Milan, 88-40 (four titles)
7. Oak Ridge, 74-36 (four titles)
8. Riverdale, 71-30 (four titles)
9. Goodpasture, 66-31 (three titles)
10. Marion County, 63-35 (four titles)