By JESSE SMITHEY
The Alcoa football team will definitely be out of its comfort zone Friday when it goes for a seventh consecutive Class 3A BlueCross Bowl championship.
Not only will the Tornadoes be kicking off eight hours before they normal do on a game day, but they’ll also be adjusting to a new venue.
The previous 12 years, the TSSAA held its state football championships at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium. Alcoa graced that field 10 times from 2009-2020 and won nine state championships in that span.
But Friday’s game will be at Chattanooga’ Finley Stadium, the new host site for the BlueCross Bowls.
That means a new travel route. New check-in points. Different dressing routines. And unfamiliar sight lines and back drops around the field.
Alcoa coach Gary Rankin, the state’s all-time leader in coaching wins with 466, isn’t worried about it, though.
“We were in a comfort zone at Tennessee Tech. We’d been there quite a few times. I’m looking forward to it, playing at UTC. It’s a different venue for us, of course,” he said Monday in a BlueCross Bowl press conference. “I know they’ll do a good job of putting on the game.
“But I don’t think it really matters where the game is being played. I think both teams will play well. It’s a different scenario. We play the first game of the day, so we don’t have to worry about stopping anywhere for a walk-through or pregame meals and all that stuff. We get on the bus early Saturday morning and we’ll get there in time to get dressed and warm up. But I’m excited about playing in a different city.”
Alcoa (13-1) will also have a new opponent this time around.
After years of routinely facing Milan, Covington or Pearl-Cohn in the season finale, Alcoa will square off against East Nashville (10-4), a team making its first-ever state championship appearance and one that has hopes of stopping the Tornadoes from being the first program in TSSAA history to reach 20 all-time state championships.
The Eagles were 5-4 heading into Week 11 of the regular season but have banded together at just the right time, upsetting Waverly (9-2) in the second round and Dyersburg (12-1) last week.
East Nashville had never advanced past the second round until this season.
“The feeling, it’s amazing, to do things we’ve never done (at East Nashville),” said East Nashville star running back Amarion Ford. “A lot of people doubted us in the season. But we’re brothers. We just kept pushing. And now, we’re at where we’re at.
“So, I think our guys are ready. We’re going to do our job. And we’re going to find a way to get a win.”
Ford makes East Nashville go and will undoubtedly be the focal point of Alcoa’s defense. The senior tailback averages roughly 20 carries and 144 yards per game. He rushed for 296 yards and four TDs in a second-round win.
But he has just one catch out the backfield this season, which will only help Alcoa defend the Eagles.
On the perimeter, East Nashville’s top receiver is junior Frank Gordon. He isn’t a big guy, but he’s been productive (45 catches, 690 yards, 11 TDs).
For East Nashville to compete, though, head coach Jamaal Stewart is trying to downplay the David versus Goliath aspect of this contest in his players’ minds.
“When you go against a great program like Alcoa, they’ve been there. They’re used to it. They have great athletes. They’re well-coached,” said Stewart. “I’ve followed Coach Rankin’s career my whole life. Even when I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a coach. I just admired him what he used to do at Riverdale when I was a kid.
“So, I know they’re going to be well-coached and things of that nature. But our kids, we’re not going to come into the game starry-eyed because we know we have a job to do. It’s a business trip. At the end of the day, we have to prepare ourselves for that.”
Alcoa’s journey to this point began with finding replacements, as it returned just six starters on offense and four on defense from its 2020 starting lineup.
Graduation decimated that lineup from the last year’s BlueCross Bowl, as standout players like 2020 Mr. Football winner Grey Carroll (DL, Georgia Tech), Isiah Cox (WR/S, Cincinnati), Ahmaudd Sankey (RB, Southeast Missouri State), Cam Burden (WR/LB/DB, Charlotte), Taharin Sudderth (TE/DE, Middle Tennessee) and Brayden Anderson (6-4, WR/S) moved on.
And it didn’t help matters much that Alcoa encountered a few Covid game cancellations from opponents along the way this fall.
But players whom Alcoa coaches were counting on to develop and to step up to fill voids have done that.
Players like seniors Itty Salter and D.J. Foster at running back.
Pass-catchers like seniors Major Newman and Isaiah Bryant, as well as freshman tight end Eli Owens.
And on defense, guys like Bubba Williams (DL), Kaden Bogan (DL), Braden Cornett (LB), Brennen Duggan (DB), Colby Bledsoe (DB) and Jamal Williams (DB) have been welcomed impact players.
The standards and expectations of winning championships in Alcoa has a way of churning out such help.
And it’s no different this year; this Alcoa team doesn’t want to be the one known for letting the string of state championships end.
“They feel that. They know that,” said Rankin. “They know the seniors have won it a lot of times at our school. It’s not something we preach on. But I think they understand that. I think they feel that a little bit, which I think is really unfair.
“But it’s just the position we’re in.”
Alcoa (13-1) is looking to win its seventh consecutive state championship in Class 3A and 20th state title overall. Head coach Gary Rankin (TSSAA best 466 career wins) has 16 all-time state titles: 12 at Alcoa and four at Riverdale.
ROAD TO STATE: def. Johnson County (Covid win), def. Gatlinburg-Pittman (63-0), def. Pigeon Forge (52-0), def. Giles County (42-12).
PLAYER WATCH – ALCOA
Caden Buckles (QB, 6-2, 215, senior): 2020 BlueCross Bowl MVP, 2021 Mr. Football Finalist
Jordan Harris (ATH/CB, 5-11, 165, junior): 33 carries, 490 yards, 7 TDs; 18 catches, 223 yards, 2 TDs; 325 yards in KO returns
Elijah Cannon (ATH/LB, 6-0, 200, sophomore): averages 9.2 yards per carry with team-high 14 rush TDs; also has nine catches for 231 yards and two TDs.
Major Newman (WR/S, 6-3, 190, senior): The No. 7 ranked local player in the 5Star Preps Class of 2022 rankings; team’s leading receiver.
Lance Williams (OL, 6-4, 300, junior): Power 5 prospect with offers from Cincinnati, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Tulane, Kansas and Appalachian State.
Bubba Jeffries (OL, 6-5, 305, junior): Power 5 prospect with offers from Florida State, Miami, Mississippi State, Oregon, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Isaiah Bryant (WR/CB, 6-2, 175, senior): 18 catches, 277 yards, 4 TDs; team-high 3 INTs on defense
Aaron Davis (LB, 5-10, 205, junior): 2020 5Star Preps Defensive Underclassman of the Year; leads Tornadoes in tackles in 2021.
EAST NASHVILLE (10-4) is in the TSSAA BlueCross Bowl for the first time in program history.
ROAD TO STATE: def. White House – Heritage (48-0), def. Waverly (41-14), def. White House (17-13), def. Dyersburg (20-7).
EAST NASHVILLE PLAYER WATCH
Amarion Ford (RB, 5-9, 205, senior): 266 carries, 1872 yards, 19 TDs
Zac Bearden (QB, 6-0, 195, junior): 103-166 passing, 1638 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs
Frank Gordon (WR, 6-0, 175, junior): 45 catches, 690 yards, 11 TDs
Chazell Adkins (DE, 5-11, 190, senior): 55 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 TFLs