What had been weeks of speculation is now a certainty just days from becoming reality.
Once the Baylor and McCallie football teams put the finishing touches on their semifinal victories Friday night, the clock began ticking toward a historic high school football matchup.
The Blue Tornado and Red Raiders have combined to claim each of the past four BlueCross Bowl state championships in Division II-AAA -- Tennessee's largest classification for private schools -- with McCallie taking consecutive titles from 2019-2021 and Baylor bringing back its first gold ball in 49 years last season.
Now, the long-time rivals, who spent most of the season ranked 1-2 in the statewide D-II AAA poll, will face off in an unprecedented title game at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Finley Stadium.
"I can not think of anything in our state's high school sports history that can match this. Nothing even comes close," said Ronnie Carter, who worked for the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association for 31 years, including 23 as executive director before retiring in 2009. He still serves as an adviser and historian to the state's high school sports governing body.
"There aren't many rivalries we have that are close to Baylor versus McCallie in any sport. Now, you have what's already considered the biggest rivalry in our state, and they're going to play for a state championship in the most watched sport we have and in their own backyard.
"You put all of that together and just try to imagine the atmosphere this game will create around Chattanooga. There's never been an event in (TSSAA) history that's even remotely close to this."
The matchup wasn't set until both teams were able to pull off second-half surges in the semifinals as McCallie (11-1) trailed Montgomery Bell Academy 9-7 at the half and held a slim five-point lead late in the fourth quarter before pulling away for a 33-15 win. Meanwhile Baylor (10-2) was tied with Knoxville Catholic near the midway point of the fourth quarter before reeling off 21 unanswered points in the final seven minutes for a 49-35 win.
"These might be the shortest 13 days of my life," McCallie defensive lineman Carson Gentle said after his team's win Friday night. "I will be so excited. It's going to be a great, great, great time."
Boyd Buchanan also advanced to the Division II-AA title game with a 36-24 win over Davidson Academy. The No. 2-ranked Buccaneers (13-0) will take on top-ranked Christ Presbyterian Academy (12-1) at 11 a.m. Nov. 30, followed by the D-II A championship game between Friendship Christian Academy and Middle Tennessee Christian and then Baylor/McCallie.
The public-school playoffs still have this week's semifinal round to determine the matchups for those six championship games, which will be played Dec. 1-2. Currently, area teams Bradley Central (Class 6A), Walker Valley (5A) and South Pittsburg (1A) remain alive with a chance to advance to their respective championship games.
Besides the game's stakes and rivalry factor, the level of talent that will be showcased on a state level by the Blue Tornado and Red Raiders will be another factor in drawing fans interest. The two teams combine to have more than 10 players who are either already committed to or have scholarship offers from Power Five college programs, which is the highest level of NCAA competition.
That list includes Baylor receiver Amari Jefferson (Alabama commit), quarterback Whit Muschamp (Vanderbilt commit) and tight end Max LeBlanc (Ohio State commit), as well as McCallie's Gentle (Tennessee commit), quarterback Jay St. Hilaire (Vanderbilt commit) and defensive back Marcellus Barnes (Virginia Tech commit).
Baylor and McCallie have met in the playoffs three times, the most recent coming in a 2010 quarterfinal won by Baylor to sweep the season series, on its way to a state runner-up finish. They also met in the 1997 postseason, with Baylor sweeping the season series with a first-round win, and in 1974 when McCallie avenged a regular-season loss with a first-round playoff win.
"I don't think it's possible to over-hype this game," said Tim Morgan, chief sports officer for the tourism promotion group Chattanooga Sports. "The hype started as soon as those two games ended Friday night, so there's no expectations for how much it will grow. It's going to be crazy. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Morgan added that in the coming days, he and his staff will determine how much added resources — security, concessions workers, parking attendants, etc. — will be needed for the Baylor/McCallie game.
"Our concern will be maximizing the experience for everyone in the stands," Morgan said. "Get them in and out of the stadium safely and quickly, in and out of the concession lines as quickly as possible. Just making sure we maximize that experience from start to finish for what will be a huge crowd.
"I was monitoring all the games online and once Baylor and McCallie won, and then Boyd Buchanan that just took it to a whole new level. It's like the perfect storm. It was one hell of a football night."
The TSSAA has held its football state championship games at a central location since 1982. During the past 40 years, the title games have moved from Vanderbilt's Dudley Field to Middle Tennessee State University's Floyd Stadium to Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium and most recently Finley Stadium, beginning in 2021.
There has never been a sellout crowd for any of the state's previous championship games since moving to the college stadium sites, but that could change when Baylor and McCallie square off inside 20,412-seat Finley Stadium.
According to TSSAA figures, the 2021 BlueCross Bowl's three-day total attendance of 27,052 exceeded the previous five seasons' highest mark by more than 6,000 fans. Those figures were boosted by having McCallie, which drew 10,211, for its game against MBA.
Previous games between Baylor and McCallie at Finley have drawn more than 10,000 for regular-season matchups.
The past two meetings have been arguably the most exciting in series history, with McCallie's 34-31 win Sept. 29 highlighted by a rivalry record five lead changes. Baylor used last year's dramatic fourth-quarter rally for a 31-27 win as a springboard to claiming its title.
Ever since their back-and-forth battle two months ago it has felt inevitable that they would meet again to decide ultimate bragging rights.
"I am sure the hype will be there," Baylor second-year coach Erik Kimrey said after Friday night's win. "We are excited and honored for the privilege to play in what will be a very historic game."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected]