It’s not every day that you get to boss around the authorities.
But when the Greeneville football team’s buses neared their arrival in Cookeville last year for the Class 4A BlueCross Bowl, the police escorts that awaited asked that they arrive at Exit 290 off of I-40.
That wasn’t going to fly with Greeneville coach Caine Ballard nor his players.
The motto and social media hashtag, #286, had been the motivator for the unbeaten Greene Devils all season, and it referenced the exit number that would give them a direct route to Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.
“We were like, ‘No, no, no.’ (Exit) 286 has been our thing all year, so please meet us there,” Ballard recalled.
“And they did.”
A few hours later, Greeneville cashed in on its opportunity and won the program’s third state title, the first two of which came in 2010 and 2011.
Cade Ballard, then a junior, looked his father / head coach in the eyes as a fellow champion for the first time — no longer the 9- or 10-year-old kid on the sidelines six or seven years before, draped in Greeneville gear and gazing up at his dad in amazement.
A little video I threw together on the ride home. pic.twitter.com/OffAmsykK1
— Darren Reese ⛳️ (@TGADarrenReese) November 27, 2017
Cade Ballard played arguably the best season in Greeneville football history, leading the Greene Devils to a 15-0 mark while winning a Mr. Football trophy and BlueCross Bowl MVP award in the process. He completed better than 82 percent of his passes that season for more than 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. He also ran for 944 yards and 20 touchdowns.
A moment and a season to cherish for a team and the Ballard family, to say the least.
But now they can relive it, maybe even top it, on Thursday.
Cade Ballard, who repeated as the winner of the Tennessee Titans Class 4A Mr. Football winner this season, will play the final game of his high school career against Haywood (10-4) on Thursday afternoon (3 p.m. Central) in Cookeville.
Emotions have already started surfacing.
“It’s hit us pretty hard these last couple of weeks,” said Caine Ballard. “Especially able to reflect on it some Friday night on the bus ride home. It’s really starting to set in. Even a lot of the assistant coaches are talking to me and saying, ‘Cade’s been around this locker room for 15 years.’ So, it’s going to be bittersweet, I think.”
He added: “I don’t see much difference in (Cade). He’s so focused on what he’s trying to do with him and his teammates. I think he’s really focused on finishing, and it’s going to hit him like a ton of bricks when it is over.”
Cade Ballard once again has helped Greeneville to an unbeaten mark heading into the season finale. He’s an 81.4 percent passer this fall for 2,955 yards, 40 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s rushed for 681 yards and 16 touchdowns.
But the only stat he cares about is getting one last win for all the guys he’s grown up with and played with at Greeneville.
“I’m able to slide it to the side,” he said, talking about the emotions of his high school career soon ending. “But here the last few weeks, it’s impossible to not think about it. The human brain, it just leaks in.
“As much as you try to keep it out for another week, it all comes in big picture. You see all the guys I’ve grown up with. We got one more game left. It’s just a blessing to be here.”
Greeneville allowed itself about a month to celebrate its 2017 championship before turning its collective focus to the 2018 season. Caine Ballard feared complacency; the title had come earlier than expected.
“This group has been together for a long time. It’s the largest senior class we’ve ever had,” he said. “Their goal has always been to do it, but to do it this year. We got it done a year earlier, but my fear for them is battling complacency.”
That fear was soon calmed when his players created the motto: “BTB.”
No, not Back-to-Back.
Rather, Better Than Before.
And they have been.
This season’s Greeneville team has scored 709 points, an average of 50.6 per game, while allowing just 7.4. Last season’s Greeneville squad scored 657 points (46.9) heading into the championship and had allowed 12.4 points per game. They beat Springfield, 54-13, to win the state title.
This time around, Haywood could pose a much stiffer challenge. The Tomcats are still in search of their first state title, having twice finished runner up in the mid 1990s.
They were once 2-4 this season but have won eight consecutive games.
“You better believe they (Haywood) are better than their record shows. They’ve lost to some really good teams in West Tennessee. They weren’t healthy at the time. They’re healthy now, and they’re showing what they can do,” said Caine Ballard. “Huge up front. And I mean, huge.
“They have probably the best running back we’ll have faced all year, and also a really good quarterback who’s a great threat to run, too.”
All BlueCross Bowls will be televised and streamed online, as well.
Or, of course, you can watch Greeneville’s repeat bid in person.
Just make sure to take Exit 286.
WANT MORE ON THE 2018 BLUE CROSS BOWLS? Check out these trends, predictions, players to watch and videos … https://www.5starpreps.com/articles/quick-read-trends-topics-notes-predictions-for-3a-4a-5a-bluecross-bowls/