By MIKE BLACKERBY
They’ve survived one of the most remarkable and unusual high school football seasons in history, fending off a gauntlet of opponents and navigating a COVID-19 minefield that changes almost by the minute.
Now, it all comes down to just one more game.
Oak Ridge and Alcoa, two of the four teams from the 5Star Preps coverage area that are still alive, will take the field Friday in the second day of the BlueCross Bowl in Cookeville.
The five-time defending Class 3A champion Tornadoes take on Milan at 11 a.m. (Central) at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.
Oak Ridge, seeking its first state title since 1991, plays Summit at 7 p.m. in the 5A championship nightcap game.
This weekend’s BlueCross Bowl winners will deserve two titles in this historic season: champions and survivors.
In terms of history the contrast is stark as tradition-laden Oak Ridge (11-3) takes on up-and-coming neophyte Summit (13-1) in the Class 5A state championship game.
The blue blood Wildcats are going for a state title in their sixth different decade.
Back in the days before the advent of the TSSAA playoff system in 1969, Oak Ridge was named state champions by at least one major wire service in 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962.
The Wildcats added state championships in the playoff era in 1975, 1979, 1980 and 1991.
Oak Ridge’s all-time playoff record is 74-34.
The Spartans, in just their 10th season of playing football, are back in the state championship game after finishing runner-up to Central a year ago.
“Oak Ridge has a long-standing and storied tradition while we’re kind of the new ones,” said Summit coach Brian Coleman, who took over the program in 2014 and has guided the Spartans to four playoff appearances.
On the field, the game figures to be a doozy and is perhaps one of the more intriguing matchups of BlueCross Bowl weekend.
Oak Ridge has won nine consecutive games since losing 22-7 to West on Sept. 17.
Summit is riding a 10-game winning streak since falling 27-20 to Franklin on Sept. 11. Included in the streak are four COVID wins.
The matchup to watch Friday could be Summit’s high-powered offense against an Oak Ridge defense that has recorded five shutouts.
Junior dual-threat quarterback Destin Wade (6-4, 205), who has college offers from Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, Penn State and more, triggers the Spartans’ spread offense.
Wade has rushed for 1,414 yards and 16 scores.
He has thrown for 1,255 yards and is completing 62.2 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“Their quarterback looks like Vince Young when he was at Texas,” said Oak Ridge coach Joe Gaddis.
“He’s hard to tackle. He can run, he can throw and he can do everything. He’s not a guy who just runs the ball, he throws the ball equally well.”
Wade, a Mr. Football finalist, has been at his best the past two weeks in wins over Beech and Henry County, flashing the ability to run and pass that Gaddis talked about.
Wade has run for 415 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 391 yards and five scores in the last two games.
“The last two games people have packed the box and tried to take away the run,” said Coleman.
Obviously, that strategy didn’t work.
Wade’s favorite targets are Brady Pierce (19 catches, 416 yards, 7 TDs) and Caleb Jolley (19 catches, 279 yards, 4 TDs).
Coleman said his Spartans will face one of the top defenses they’ve seen all season in Oak Ridge.
“Since watching the first West game film they’ve improved a lot,” said Coleman.
“They’re a hard-nosed defense and very aggressive. They held (South-Doyle) to nothing last week.”
The Wildcats have shown improved defensive play almost across the board.
Linemen Jaxon Adams, Ky Hirsch and Izaiah Boone all had big games last week against the Cherokees and have shown marked improvement during the season.
Linebackers Jacob Berven and Brian Kelley will be keys this week in containing Wade.
Oak Ridge’s secondary is led by Cole Adams and Preston Turner.
Offensively, Gaddis said the Wildcats have to come alive Friday after they generated less than 150 yards in the 14-0 win over South-Doyle in the semifinals.
“We have to figure out some way to control the ball and not let our defense be out there all night,” said Gaddis.
“Defensively, (I’m confident) we’ll play well, but the idea of stopping a team like Summit cold is just not going to happen.”
The Spartans are led on defense by Keaten Wade, Destin’s twin brother.
Keaten is a 6-5, 210-pound middle linebacker who has also receiver numerous Power 5 offers. However, he’s been limited in 2020 by a foot injury. He is expected to play against the Wildcats.
“He makes plays all over the field,” said Gaddis.
Oak Ridge, which has played one of the toughest schedules in the state, has one more mountain to climb in a season laced with obstacles.
“It seems like every week the challenge becomes greater,” said Gaddis.
“We’re always the underdog, but our players seem to relish it.”
Alcoa (13-1) shoots for its sixth-consecutive 3A title Friday against Milan (12-1).
A win would give the Tornadoes their 19th state football championship – which would increase its lead for most football titles in TSSAA history. They won seven in a row from 2004-2010.
But Alcoa may be heading into another championship game without its normal swagger.
The Tornadoes may be missing “two or three” starters due to injuries, according to coach Gary Rankin.
Also, Alcoa is still looking to get back a handful of players off the contact-tracing quarantine list.
Couple that with a capable, athletic Milan team and the Tornadoes could face a rare serious threat in the finals.
Alcoa has won the last five state championship games by an average of 20 points.
“It has been probably the most uncomfortable year I’ve ever had in coaching for a lot of reasons,” said Rankin, who has won 15 state titles, including 11 at Alcoa.
“I’ve had to throw a couple of kids off the team and we’ve been dealing with COVID and injuries,” explained Rankin.
The Tornadoes suffered a big blow when star senior defensive back/receiver Isiah Cox suffered a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale against Dobyns-Bennett.
Cox, who has since committed to Cincinnati, is the No. 1 player on 5Star Preps Top 25 Prospects list for the Class of 2021.
Rankin said losing Cox was like losing multiple players.
“He was a great defensive guy, a great offensive guy and a great team leader. Without a doubt he was our biggest threat.”
Rankin said the Bulldogs won’t give Alcoa any deer-in-the-headlights looks Friday.
The Tornadoes will have to go out and earn another state championship.
“They’re a physical team and they’ve got as many athletes as we do,” said Rankin.
“They just play good, hard-nosed football. They’re just like us, they don’t care who they’re playing. They’re the real deal.”
The Bulldogs have won 12 games in a row since dropping a 34-13 decision to two-time defending 2A state champion Peabody in their season opener.
“They’ve got a lot of momentum going in,” said Rankin.
Milan features Anthony Brown, a 6-2, 192-pound junior do-it-all player who has offers from Michigan State and Alabama.
“He plays defensive back, receiver and they use him at quarterback in the wildcat as a change of pace,” said Rankin.
“He has got speed and power. He’s the real deal.”
Friday’s game showcases two of the three Mr. Football finalists in 3A – Brown and Alcoa lineman Grey Carroll, who has signed with Georgia Tech.
Given the hurdles Alcoa has had to clear just to get back to Cookeville, Rankin said a sixth state title in a row would be a major accomplishment.
“We get everybody’s best shot,” said Rankin.
“It has been a struggle just to get to the finish line. To win it would be special.”