• 59°

2020 BlueCross Bowl Class 4A State Championship… The familiarity of state finals should calm Cyclones

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
One thing that both teams have entering this Saturday’s BlueCross Bowl Class 4A State Championship is a familiarity with having been at that level and playing for the top spot in Tennessee’s Class 4A football for 2020.

Haywood having played Greeneville in 2018 and then the Cyclones winning the title last year means that both teams will have players who have experienced the environment that surrounds playing at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium for the championship gold ball.

And although it will be completely different this year after seeing over 6,000 fans pack the Elizabethton stands last season and tickets being allocated for only 2,750 for each team due to COVID, it will still be an electrically charged atmosphere playing at this prestigious level of prep football.

And by the way, there are still tickets remaining should any Cyclone fans want to make the trip to Cookeville to support the team on the GoFan page accessible by visiting the TSSAA website and following directions to that page.

The Cyclones seem like they are peaking at the right time especially after the number they did on Nolensville this past week in Nashville to earn the opportunity to defend their 2019 title when they scored on all eight of their possessions in the contest.

Many feel that the Cyclones are the team to beat in this game as Haywood comes in with a record of 11-3 but three of those games were by COVID forfeits and the Tomcats opened the season with three straight losses.

But if anyone knows head coach Shawn Witten of Elizabethton, he will leave no rock unturned in preparations for the Tomcats nor will he listen to the noise surrounding the talk of his team winning their second straight title.

He is approaching this week in the same approach he has come into the last 29 games that the Cyclones have won knowing that if the Cyclones don’t execute and keep their mental focus it could be bad news for the boys in orange and black.

However, this season has proved a lot in just simply keeping healthy when other teams have had to forfeit games due to COVID and having the bullseye on their back as the defending state champs.

“I think its a credit to our kids,” said Cyclone head coach Shawn Witten. “Just the mind set we have had coming into this year knowing that we were going to get everyone’s best shot and how we have had to perform each week.

“At times, we have not really played our best football. We did so last week against Nolensville but I think that we have been able to manage the outside noise and stay focused on what our job is and we have been able to win the games that we needed to win.

“At times, we have not been able to put our best football together but we did last week to put us in the state championship game,” Witten continued. “I think its a credit to our guys with the COVID situation and having a lot of expectations while not trying to add a whole more pressure to ourselves, I think is a credit to them.

“Just having an experienced ball club and understanding what we have to each and every day.”

Haywood is a team similar to Elizabethton in the fact they have been able to get to the semifinals of the state but have yet figured out how to win the elusive gold ball.

Witten knows that the Tomcats will be coming with something to prove on Saturday.

“It goes back to their program. Four straight semifinal appearances and 2018 they played a state championship game against Greeneville. Last year they got upset and should have been there,” stated Witten.

“It’s really a historic program that understands what it takes to get to the top. Obviously, they are really talented players and a really talented program.

“They have a lot of players that go on and play at the next level,” commented Witten. “A new coach that has been there two years that has been trying to get them over the hump. Just a talented and athletic team that has some size and skill level. I think they have a couple of receivers that can make plays on the outside.

“I do think they are a tough football team that likes to run it and do a great job. Its tough to really account for their speed. I think they are well coached and sound in what they do.

“They have a really good kicker that kicks a lot of touchbacks and he kicked a 32-yard field goal to win the game in the semifinals.”

With 2020, the challenges from day to day along with finding the right players to plug into spots left vacant from graduation last year has shown how resilent Witten and his coaching staff have been in working the Cyclones through all the twists and turns of a rather unique season.

“Just taking it one day at a time and understanding with what we graduated when you plug in players you can’t expect the same result. I think that when you have new guys step in you have to do what they can do well,” said Witten.

“On one side of the ball we have managed to stay healthy and keep guys on the field. The coaches have been able to keep our guys working and get them better in all phases.

“We have had the ability to move people around. Ultimately football comes in full circles.

“Ladarian Avery started the season as running back and H-back and now he is back at linebacker. The ability to move Parker to running back has helped tremendously as well in the playoffs,” Witten continued.

“Our offensive line, I think people expected them to be like the Blind Side and just bury people and just dominate every single game. They have struggled at times this year but they have played big in some of the big games.

“At playoff time, our coaches do a good job of making sure we get great looks during practice and playing everybody.”

Nothing will change this week from last as Witten expects each player and coach to do their part if they are to pull off back-to-back state championships.

That includes needing the support of the Cyclone fans to be in full force at Tucker Stadium on Saturday because whether one realizes it or not, there is a lot of energy that comes from having the presence of the community especially in these big games.

“Last week showed it comes down to a total team effort. We saved our best football for last week and we have to do the same this week to bring the gold ball home,” Witten stated.

“Our team feeds off our Cyclone Nation. We need our Elizabethton fans because they are the best and have stuck with us for the last 14 years and have helped to pull us through.”

Kickoff will be at 11 am CST, 12 noon EST on Saturday. There will also be a special sendoff on Thursday evening at 6 pm at Citizens Bank Stadium.