Record number of Chattanooga-area prep football teams thankful to still be practicing

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Bradley Central football team chaplain Mickey Clark says a blessing before the Bears eat Wednesday at the high school. The team, which is 13-0, had a Thanksgiving meal after its last practice before hosting Murfreesboro's Oakland on Friday night in a TSSAA Class 6A semifinal.
Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Bradley Central football team chaplain Mickey Clark says a blessing before the Bears eat Wednesday at the high school. The team, which is 13-0, had a Thanksgiving meal after its last practice before hosting Murfreesboro's Oakland on Friday night in a TSSAA Class 6A semifinal.

For the collection of players and coaches whose teams are still alive in the prep football playoffs, there's no need to go back for seconds at the dessert table on Thursday. Life is already sweet enough.

When the TSSAA season begins each August, the goal for every team across Tennessee is to still be practicing on Thanksgiving. That's traditionally the week of the state semifinals for public schools and the off week for private schools that already qualified for the BlueCross Bowl championship games.

This fall, there are six grateful teams from in or around Chattanooga still practicing, the most the area has ever had advance this far.

Three private schools — Baylor and McCallie in Division II-AAA and Boyd Buchanan in DII-AA — won their semifinals last week, while public schools Bradley Central (Class 6A), Walker Valley (5A) and South Pittsburg (1A) remain in the Division I brackets, needing one more win Friday to advance to their title games.

"To be able to practice and play this week is a blessing," Walker Valley senior quarterback Evan Schwarzl said. "Not many high school football players are able to say they have practiced on Thanksgiving.

"This opportunity is so cool, to be around my family on the field, and we are blessed and thankful to be around each other for this special week."

This is the first semifinal appearance in Walker Valley history. Led by head coach Drew Akins, who practiced on Thanksgiving three times as a player at Boyd Buchanan from 2002-2004, the Mustangs (11-2) have also set a program record for single-season wins. They will travel to Knoxville West (12-1), which is playing in its third straight semifinal and won last year's 5A title.

Although players don't typically look forward to the daily grind of practice, this week is different as the chance to compete for a state championship might rest on the precision of every repetition.

Akins and his staff have arranged for the players to be served a Thanksgiving dinner after Thursday morning's practice.

"Our kids are fired up for it, so we are taking every moment in and really celebrating this time together," Akins said. "As a coaching fraternity, we always talk about this being the goal and what it would mean to get to still be practicing on Thanksgiving. To be able to do it is just a really cool and special time as a team."

 

Championship chase

The Chattanooga area has had at least one state finalist in either Tennessee or Georgia for 24 straight seasons, and only twice in the past 32 years has an area team not reached a title game. With the area's four remaining Peach State teams eliminated last week in the second round of the GHSA playoffs, the six TSSAA teams are left to contend.

For the third year in a row, the BlueCross Bowl is in Chattanooga, with all nine title games taking place in the three-day event at Finley Stadium from Thursday, Nov. 30, to Saturday, Dec. 2.

The Scenic City is guaranteed at least one champion with Baylor (10-2) and McCallie (11-1) facing off in the DII-AAA final next Thursday night. One of those teams has won the DII-AAA crown the past four seasons, with the Red Raiders the reigning champs — last season's title was Baylor's second overall but first in 49 years — and the Blue Tornado having won three in a row from 2019-21, so the rivals' streak of dominance is guaranteed to extend by another year.

With Boyd Buchanan (13-0) also already set to play for a championship, facing Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Academy (12-1) in the DII-AA final next Thursday morning, if at least one of the three remaining D-I teams advances, it would mark the highest number of area teams to reach a title game in the same season. Three local teams have played for titles in the same season four times previously (1994, 1995, 2010 and 2020), but never four.

"We know what's at stake, and not many teams get to experience it," said Bradley Central's Damon Floyd, who is in his 18th season as head coach his alma mater and has guided the program to 13 straight playoff appearances, but none past the quarterfinals before this season. The Bears are in the semifinals for the first time since their 1976 state championship season.

With last week's win, Floyd tied for the program lead in career victories with 124. His coaching staff's wives and players' parents prepared and served the team a meal after Wednesday morning's practice.

"When you're sitting at home on Thanksgiving and other people are practicing, that gets old," said Floyd, whose 13-0 team will host three-time reigning champ Murfreesboro Oakland (11-2). "So this is just a huge deal for our team, our school and our community. Everybody is really proud of what these kids have accomplished already."


Familiar territory

No area program has a more accomplished playoff history than South Pittsburg, which is making its 22nd appearance in the semifinal round. The top-ranked Pirates (13-0) travel to Oliver Springs (10-3) with a chance to advance to the title game for the third time in four years and 14th time overall.

South Pittsburg's 94 all-time playoff wins rank behind only Maryville (137), Alcoa (133) and Brentwood Academy (108) in state history. Although it may sound arrogant, Pirates fans have come to expect a discussion about the next day's opponent as part of their Thanksgiving dinner conversation each year.

"There is just something about waking up on Thanksgiving morning knowing you get to go to football practice," said Pirates coach Wes Stone, who will be going through his 14th turkey day practice as either a player or coach. "I'm just as excited this year as I was as a player.

"Some people never have the opportunity to do this once, but at this program it's just the expectation every year."

No coach in state history has experienced practicing on Thanksgiving more than Boyd Buchanan's Gary Rankin, who is navigating the holiday schedule for the 23rd time in his hall of fame career. Having already led Murfreesboro Riverdale and Alcoa to multiple state championships, Rankin has now guided the Buccaneers back to the title round for the first time in 14 years.

"I needed counseling last year when we didn't make it," said Rankin, who missed the semifinals last season — his first at Boyd Buchanan — for the first time in 11 years. "We've been spoled to get to do it quite a bit. One of the most enjoyable experiences as a coach is coming in on Thanksgiving morning and getting to practice.

"I try to keep it as normal as possible. Come in and practice, and then let everybody go spend the rest of the day with their families. I try to make sure our kids understand it's not guaranteed every year and we're fortunate to get to do it."

Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].

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