SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — It is a tradition unique to the South Pittsburg High School football program. Unique in that everyone from the players and coaches to the supporters throughout the small community all treat it as a mere formality, an annual rite of each football season.
For the fifth time in six years and 22nd season overall, the Pirates were still practicing during Thanksgiving week to prepare for a TSSAA state semifinal. No other program in the Chattanooga area has expectations that soar quite that high on an annual basis.
"There's just an expectation here from our team and the people around us that we're usually the only team left playing this time of year," co-head coach Wes Stone said. "As soon as the playoff brackets come out, we have people that start making their plans around whether we'll be playing at home or traveling for the semis.
"That kind of consistency is just a testament to where this program has been for so long."
As part of its tradition, the team enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal together — supplied by community supporters — on Thursday before the Pirates' walk-through practice in final preparation for Friday's 270-mile trip northeast to Roan Mountain to face Cloudland (12-1) with a spot in the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl state championship game on the line. By comparison, this is only the third season the Highlanders have advanced to the semifinals, and no other area program has reached the semis more than 11 times.
However, this is one of the most unlikely playoff runs in program history after the Pirates (9-2) had to overcome their head coach abruptly resigning after the season opener and having three games canceled due to COVID-19 early this season.
Offensive balance is among the biggest reasons South Pittsburg was able to overcome those obstacles, and that begins with the connection — on and off the field — between twins Reginald and Richard Hunter.
At a program that has built its foundation on a power ground game, Richard's emerging ability as a passer has prevented opposing defenses from stacking the box to stop the run. After having to sit behind a three-year starter last season, the 6-foot-2, 195 pound senior has taken control of the offense, throwing for 1,318 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"I know it was frustrating for him to have to sit back and watch last year, but honestly it may have been the best thing for him," said Pirates assistant Terrell Robinson, who still owns most of South Pittsburg's passing records and was the Southern Conference freshman of the year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "That's a hard process, I know, but it allowed him to learn to read defenses better and also work on his mechanics and grow as a player.
"The thing that impressed me was he just kept coming in every day to work and get better, and when his time came, he stepped up and has proven himself. He's a leader — someone whose words have value in our locker room because everybody respects him so much."
Richard has gotten noticeably better as the season progressed, including a pair of playoff games with 200-plus passing yards. In South Pittsburg's 44-point eruption against Gordonsville last week, Richard connected on two first-half touchdown passes, including a 70-yard dart on the second play of the game, to pave the way for the Pirates to finish with more than 200 yards both rushing and passing against a defense that came in having allowed just nine points per game.
"Last year was frustrating, but I knew my time was coming so I just tried to support my teammates and work to make myself better," said Richard, who missed the Pirates' loss to Dade County this season because of a concussion he sustained the week before; in his absence the team lacked the consistency it has shown with him in charge.
"It really helped having my brother to talk to about it. We do everything together and we've just always been really close, so having someone like that to talk to helped me through it. When we were younger, we had a coach who would tell us to compete against each other because we were the best athletes on the team and he said it would make us better. But we just never could compete against each other. We're more each other's biggest supporters."
Nearly half of Richard's passing total — 34 completions for 624 yards and 15 touchdowns — has been caught by his brother Reginald, who at 6-4 and 220 pounds is a matchup nightmare for defenses. South Pittsburg coaches said Reginald has also become the team's best blocker, and once the playoffs began he was asked to play defensive end as well. He has solidified that spot with his performance, including two sacks and a tackle for loss last week.
"I'm confident in my ability to make plays and in my brother to get the ball to me when we have a mismatch or to whoever is open to make a play," Reginald said. "Me and my brother have always had this connection where he knows where I'm going to be and I know where he's going with the ball before he throws it.
"Sometimes after he calls a play, when we're leaving the huddle, I can see how the defense is lined up and already know where he's going with the ball and what I need to do. This year has been a lot of fun to be back out there together, getting to make plays to help us win."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.