OLIVER SPRINGS, Tenn. — What was believed to be a mere formality is now a confirmed reservation.
After a dominant regular season that carried over into the first three rounds of the TSSAA playoffs, South Pittsburg reaching the BlueCross Bowl has felt inevitable. Friday night, for the first time this season, Class 1A's top-ranked Pirates had to battle through adversity before securing their third appearance in the state championship game in four years, beating Oliver Springs 31-6 to improve to 14-0.
On South Pittburg's opening drive, senior quarterback Kamden Wellington, a two-time Tennessee Titans Mr. Football semifinalist, suffered a sprained ankle and was unable to continue playing. In his absence, the Pirates simplified their offense — rushing 42 times for 338 yards and completing just one of seven passes for minus-7 yards — while the defense was once again stifling.
South Pittsburg vs. Oliver Springs on Nov. 24, 2023
"The game plan, when Kamden went down, was to just become one-dimensional and run the football, run the clock and get out of here with a win," Pirates coach Wes Stone said. "With our defense, once we get a three-score lead, we feel pretty good about our defense holding it.
"It's a testament to those seniors and our defense, which sets the tone. We gave up one or two plays, but for the most part we kept them in check all night."
Oliver Springs finished 10-4 while ending its season by hosting the same opponent it had visited in the opener. The final score was better for the Bobcats than on Aug. 18, when South Pittsburg won 56-0, but they were unable to keep the Pirates out of the title round.
South Pittsburg will face McKenzie (13-1), which won last year's 1A championship, next Friday at 3 p.m. at Finley Stadium. The Rebels defeated second-ranked Dresden 25-14 in the other 1A semifinal.
Without Wellington, who had accounted for an average of more than 200 yards in his team's first three playoff games, South Pittsburg turned the quarterback duties over to senior Jamarion Farrior, a standout defender who is the team's leading tackler but had seen limited action on offense — and at running back.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder ran 17 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns, while sophomore JaMychal Buckner added 12 rushes for 78 yards.
"At that point, when QB1 goes down, it's next man up," Farrior said. "All week, I could hear Coach Stone in my head saying, 'God forbid if Kamden gets hurt,' but unfortunate events happen, and I knew I had to come up big for my team and be the senior I am and just lead us so we can go play for that gold ball."
Buckner capped the team's first possession — a 10-play, 85-yard drive — with a 31-yard touchdown, and when the Pirates stalled deep in Bobcats territory, Alex Phillips connected on his first field-goal attempt of the season, a 26-yarder, to push the lead to 10-0 early in the second quarter.
On the ensuing Oliver Springs possession, AJ Wallace scooped up a fumble and returned it 25 yards for a 17-0 advantage, and from there the game was turned over to a Pirates defense that has held 10 opponents from within the classification to an average of just four points per game.
South Pittsburg held the Bobcats to 192 total yards, including 25 on the ground. Oliver Springs failed to convert on its nine third downs, was also stuffed on a fourth-and-4 attempt and turned the ball over three times, including a pair of interceptions by Pirates sophomore Kadyn Pace.
"Our defense comes out to shut people down every game, but without our quarterback, we knew the offense wouldn't be as wide open, so we just took the mentality that if we didn't let them score, we couldn't lose," Farrior said.
Farrior's only mistake came when he lost a fumble at the Bobcats' 26 late in the third quarter, which opened the door for the hosts to strike for a 74-yard touchdown pass from Liam Boeke to Ja'quan Benton and pull within 17-6. Farrior made amends on the next possession, converting on third-and-7 with a 36-yard touchdown run that essentially put the game out of reach.
"When you get to the state championship, you're looking for it to be the two best teams in the state," Stone said, "and obviously we were the best team in the east, and now we get to see how we measure against a really good team from the west side."
South Pittsburg is in the state finals for the 14th time in program history and will be seeking its seventh title. The Pirates won the 2021 Class 1A title by beating Mckenzie 24-21.
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].