Class 4-A BlueCross Bowl… Cyclones have eyes on a third gold ball – but it won’t be easy
Published 11:39 pm Monday, November 29, 2021
BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
Saturday when Tullahoma walks into Finley Stadium on the campus of U-T Chattanooga, the Elizabethton Cyclones will know just how the Wildcats will feel as a lump rises in their throat just at being in the state title game.
Two years ago, the Cyclones walked onto the turf in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech – excited yet jittery about an experience like one they had never had much like the Wildcats.
Now, Elizabethton will be walking into the game with two straight years in the biggest game in Class 4-A on the biggest stage and having two gold championship balls under their belt and ready to fight to the very end for a three-peat opportunity.
But according to Cyclone head coach Shawn Witten, just because his team is the defending back-to-back state champs, it really doesn’t change the fact that every year is different.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you get there, it’s still tough,” Witten said on Monday. “The team that we are playing this week is a senior-led ball team. They have 20 out of 22 starters that are seniors so it’s an experienced football team. They have a coach that has been coaching high school football for a lot of years and has a lot of wins.
“It’s been a grind to get to this point for us. “We have had the underdog mentality the entire year. Even in beating Greeneville, you are never the favorite – you still have to find ways to win. I do think the more times you get there, the better chance you have playing in big football games that puts you in a lot of great situations and great experience. With them being a senior-led team it just makes it a difficult challenge.”
Tullahoma is another team that the Cyclones will be playing for the first time. Witten was asked how he would describe the Wildcats to someone who hasn’t seem the team play.
“There are a lot of similarities to us last year. They have good sized offensive linemen and they have a dual-threat quarterback that makes the plays a lot like Bryson and they are very stout on defense,” Witten said.
“You take into consideration they are a group of players who have been playing together for a long period of time. They have done a great job just with the experience,” Witten continued. “It’s a tight group. They have kind of marked it as this is the team to get them an opportunity to be there. Previously, they have had only two semi-final appearances back in the 70’s and 80’s. There are a lot of similarities to the style of football that we play and a lot of similarities to the football teams that we have played.”
The Wildcats come from Region 5 and compete in a nine-team conference. Aside from Pearl Cohn who finished with an 11-2 record, the conference itself didn’t have a high winning percentage as the remaining seven teams combined for a 29-44 record.
However, when a team makes it to the last game of the season, it did so through confidence in its ability to do so.
“Anytime that you get to this point, especially last week with Upperman, they have built a lot of confidence from the early part of the season until now,” said Witten. “14-0 gives you a lot of confidence as well as the maturity and experience of the guys who have played for three and four years.
“They played Pearl Cohn twice and they beat Haywood County who was undefeated last week so they have been challenged. They were down 16-7 and responded back to take the lead. They have a college-style kicker that is really good in the punting and kicking game. They are a really good team and that is what you get when you get to these games – it’s about the two best teams and not so much about the individual talent.”
The Cyclones have played a tough schedule and have had to battle through adversity to get a shot at gold ball number three and right now the mindset of the team can be simplified down to one key component – do whatever it takes to win as a team and not individually.
“Last Friday in the semifinals, it wasn’t a pretty win,” Witten admitted. “Whether it’s our defense that wins, our offense that wins, or our special teams that win, you just do whatever it takes to win. It’s not about individuals trying to compete for the MVP, it’s finding a way to win.
“Playing together as a unit, fighting on every snap – it’s about having our minds right and being prepared as well as blocking out the noise and getting ourselves ready to play and it’s going to be a four-quarter, 48 minute battle. We have told our team as well that it takes extra preparation and extra time – we talked about Alabama going four overtimes this past weekend, Ohio State losing, Oklahoma losing – every week you have to play your best football.
“One thing is that we are healthy and playing our best football now and so we have to find a way to do it one more time,” Witten continued. “I think Friday after that game there was a lot of exhaustion. There was a time in the Upperman game that we let up a little bit and let them get back in the football game. Our young guys have got to do a good job of giving us great looks throughout the week in preparation leading up to Saturday.”
A win on Saturday will give the Cyclones their 43rd win in the last three years against only one loss.