McCallie beats Baylor to win DII-AAA state title in 'mountaintop' moment for coach Ralph Potter

Blue Tornado end Red Raiders' reign with fourth championship in five years

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / McCallie’s Carson Gentle (17) holds the TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship trophy as the Blue Tornado celebrate after beating Baylor in the BlueCross Bowl on Thursday night at Finley Stadium.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / McCallie’s Carson Gentle (17) holds the TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship trophy as the Blue Tornado celebrate after beating Baylor in the BlueCross Bowl on Thursday night at Finley Stadium.

Two months after winning the most exciting Baylor-McCallie football game ever played, the Blue Tornado prevailed in the most meaningful matchup ever staged between the storied Chattanooga rivals.

McCallie’s 34-28 victory Thursday night inside an electric Finley Stadium was accompanied by its fourth TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship in the past five years. This anticipated rematch in the BlueCross Bowl did not have the five lead changes like the Blue Tornado’s 34-31 triumph at their Spears Stadium on Sept. 29, but it contained plenty of drama.

It also took place before an announced crowd of 18,149, which marked Finley’s largest football-related audience since a record 23,010 attended Appalachian State’s downing of Delaware in the 2007 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title showdown.

“I haven’t really experienced anything like that,” McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. “This is just the mountaintop right here. This is it.”

When asked if this was his favorite of his five state championships — the first came back in 2001 — Potter said, “Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

McCallie finished its season with a 12-1 record, while Baylor concluded its year at 10-3. Erik Kimrey’s Red Raiders were seeking a second consecutive state crown.

“We struggled with both sides of the line at times,” Kimrey said. “I thought our offensive line battled, but they’re just very talented on defense. We just made too many big mistakes, the things that you talk about with our last game against them — a couple of critical turnovers and a lack of execution in the red zone. We struggled to run the ball down there and had to get kind of creative.

“At the end, it was just too little, too late.”


Jay St-Hilaire completed 22 of 28 passes for 309 yards and four touchdowns to lead McCallie’s offense to a 474-yard evening. Enrique Leclair was a popular target, amassing eight catches for 173 yards and a touchdown, while Ja’Von McMahan complemented the aerial attack with 22 carries for 122 yards and a score.

Leclair reached out with one hand and tipped the ball up to himself to make a 59-yard reception to Baylor’s 5-yard line midway through the third quarter. The connection set up a 5-yard scoring toss from St-Hilaire to Nolan Sergeant that gave McCallie the game’s only double-digit advantage at 34-21.

“I saw where it was about to be a contested catch, and Jay threw a perfect ball to my hand,” Leclair said. “I tipped it and caught it, and I kept my balance to stay in bounds.”

McCallie kept its 34-21 lead until Whit Muschamp avoided pressure from Carson Gentle and threw across the middle of the field to Amari Jefferson, who raced 63 yards for a one-play touchdown drive that pulled the Red Raiders within 34-28 with 6:39 remaining. McCallie drove into Baylor territory on its ensuing possession, but St-Hilaire was intercepted by Antonio Fields, giving the Red Raiders the ball at their own 8-yard line with 2:27 left.

Muschamp found Jefferson for 15 yards and again for 27 to move Baylor out to midfield, but a 2-yard loss on first down was followed by a pair of incompletions. Facing fourth-and-12 from the Baylor 48, Muschamp connected with Jefferson, but for only 11 yards, thus turning the ball over on downs.

“We called a couple of timeouts there just to make sure we were in the right call,” Kimrey said. “It felt like a minute on the clock would be forever if we converted that first down.”

Jefferson racked up 210 yards on eight catches and scored twice.

Baylor needed less than two minutes to take a 7-0 lead, striking on a 41-yard pass from Muschamp to Jefferson, and the Red Raiders went up 14-7 on a 64-yard run by Shekai Mills-Knight. It was a dizzying first 12 minutes that ended in a 14-14 deadlock.

“The way this thing started out, I thought, ‘Holy cow, this thing is going to be 60-60,’” Potter said. “It just took us a little longer to score than them. We ended up doing a little bit better defensively as the game went on.”

Things got strange early in the second quarter, as a high snap to Red Raiders punter Cooper Keown resulted in McCallie taking over at the Baylor 17. The Blue Tornado picked up a first down, but on fourth-and-goal from the 2, St-Hilaire was stripped by Baylor linebacker Nelson McKnight, who raced 98 yards the other way for one of the most memorable scores in the rivalry’s history.

“I was just lucky to come down with the ball,” McKnight said. “I had it underneath, and I just stripped it out and saw the daylight, so I went for it.”

McCallie regrouped to pull within 21-20 on a 21-yard pass from St-Hilaire to Zacahry Chari and forge ahead 27-21 on a 7-yard pass from St-Hilaire to Gentle with 15 seconds before halftime. Baylor defensive back Tyler Rice hit Chari, which caused the ball to pop up and into Rice’s arms, but officials ruled that Chari already had crossed the goal line.

Thursday’s game lived up to the hype and marked the third straight clash between Potter’s Blue Tornado and Kimrey’s Red Raiders that was decided in the final minutes.

“It was a fantastic atmosphere,” Kimrey said. “What a great night for the city of Chattanooga. I hate that we couldn’t bring this title home for Baylor, but I couldn’t be more proud of these kids this year and their strength and love for each other. We’ll be back.”

Said Potter: “They’re all special, but this team just has a really close place to my heart.”

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