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ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. — Considering the obstacles the South Pittsburg High School football team had already cleared this season, it was only fitting that the Pirates once again had to prove their resolve to return to the BlueCross Bowl.
After trailing for much of the first three quarters, the Pirates rallied twice to tie in the second half, then used a gutsy call on special teams to spark another late score that led to a 30-22 win at Cloudland in a Class 1A semifinal Friday night.
South Pittsburg (10-2) returns to the championship game after finishing as the runner-up to Fayetteville last year and will take on McKenzie next Friday at 4 p.m. at Finley Stadium. McKenzie (13-0), which dropped down from 2A this season, knocked off Peabody 36-30 in Friday's other semifinal. McKenzie eliminated Fayetteville in the quarterfinals.
"Our kids are just so resilient," Pirates co-head coach Wes Stone said. "They just kept coming and kept fighting until we somehow found a way. I can't say enough about the way this group just never gives up. That says a lot about their character."
The Highlanders (12-2) used their ball-control style to set the tone in the first half, limiting the Pirates' possessions and jumping out to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter. South Pittsburg cut the deficit in half on a 27-yard scoring pass from Richard Hunter to his twin brother Reginald, then opened the second half with a quick scoring drive, capped by De'Andre Kelly's 14-yard run to tie it.
Cloudland, which threw just three passes and ran the ball 65 times for 346 yards, answered with a 13-play, 70-yard drive punctuated by Seth Birchfield's 3-yard touchdown and 2-point conversion runs for a 22-14 advantage. The Highlanders then recovered a fumble and drove to the Pirates' 2-yard line, but after an illegal procedure penalty moved the ball back to the 7, South Pittsburg's defense held on fourth down.
"We knew what we had to do there," said Pirates senior defensive lineman Gio Davis, who was the first defender in on that key stop. "We knew that might be the game right there on that play. That was a real big moment, and then our offense finally got going."
Energized by the defensive stand, the Pirates covered 96 yards in seven plays, with Richard Hunter hooking up with Kelly on a 35-yard touchdown, then finding his brother for the tying 2-point pass with 8:14 remaining.
Stone then elected to onside kick, and the decision paid off as the Pirates recovered, then took their first lead four plays later when the Hunter twins hooked up again, this time on a 44-yard scoring strike as well as the 2-point toss.
"When we got it back, we knew we had to capitalize," said Richard Hunter, who was 13-of-19 passing for 208 yards and three touchdowns as his brother caught six of those passes for 102 yards and a pair of scores. "We never give up. The game ain't over till that clock hits zero, so we just kept fighting."
South Pittsburg's defense then forced and recovered a fumble — for the third time in the game — at its 46 with 55 seconds remaining. With Cloudland out of timeouts, the visitors were able to run out the clock.
"They're a big, physical, old-school style team, and we were having trouble getting them off the field," Stone said. "We saw an open spot on their kick return team where we thought we could drop the ball and have a chance at recovering it. Our kids executed it and then finished it off with one more big play that we needed.
"We've just got a lot of kids who have played in some really big games and tough environments, so they kept punching and trying to make something good happen until they did."
The Pirates are in the title round for the 13th time and are seeking to add their sixth championship but first since 2010.
All nine TSSAA classifications' championships will be decided during the BlueCross Bowl next Thursday through Saturday at Finley Stadium, with McCallie seeking a third straight title in Division II-AAA on Thursday.