Built similarly, and off to similarly impressive starts this prep football season, a pair of state-ranked small schools will meet Friday night with big-time ramifications for Region 3-1A.
When Whitwell, ranked No. 6 in Class 1A, travels to face ninth-ranked Sale Creek, a likely home playoff game is on the line as well as the winner maintaining pace toward a potential region title.
The biggest difference between the teams is the amount of experience in a game with so much at stake. While Whitwell (4-0, 1-0) was a nine-win team last season and has a recent state championship (2018) in its program history, Sale Creek (3-1, 1-0) has never won more than five games in a single season, has never hosted a playoff game and has never advanced past the first round of the TSSAA postseason in the program's 10-year history.
"The only people who know what type of atmosphere to expect are a few of us coaches. Our kids have zero experience in a game with this much riding on it," said Panthers coach Jason Fitzgerald, who guided Meigs County to six straight 10-win seasons — including back-to-back appearances in the Class 2A BlueCross Bowl state title game in 2019-20 — before resigning in February to take over at Sale Creek.
"We're not going to play it up too big because I'm not sure we're ready for that yet," Fitzgerald added. "We had the biggest crowd Sale Creek has ever had a couple of weeks ago when we played Bledsoe County, and we wound up making a bunch of costly mistakes. If they realize how big this game is, it might make them really lose their minds."
In their loss to Bledsoe, the Panthers had an interception returned for a touchdown, and another turnover inside their 10-yard line set up a second score.
Both teams brought back seven offensive and seven defensive starters from last year's playoff teams and have been solid on both sides of the ball so far, with Sale Creek earning a state ranking for the first time. The teams have split the last two meetings in the series, including a 30-28 Panthers win in three overtimes in 2020.
Whitwell's experienced line has paved the way for the offense to average more than 7 yards per carry in rushing for more than 1,000 yards already. The backfield of quarterback Bennett McDougal and running backs Wyatt Davis and Therion Mordecai have combined for nearly 700 of that total, each averaging better than 6 yards per carry.
Davis has gained 225 yards despite missing the first two games, and McDougal has also thrown for nearly 200 yards and is among the team's defensive leaders with 17.5 tackles.
"Our line probably doesn't get enough credit, but it all starts with them up front," said Tigers coach Rocky Stephenson, whose team has outscored opponents by an average of 32-8.
Stephenson, an all-state athlete at Whitwell, has revived his alma mater, which had gone 4-18 in the two years before his arrival but is 17-7 since he took over.
"We're both experienced teams that want to run the football, that's no secret," Fitzgerald said. "Games like this, with so much riding on them, it's not something you can talk your way through. You just have to learn how to deal with it by playing the game."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].
AREA PREP FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Friday, Sept. 15
Games begin at 7:30 p.m. Eastern unless noted
Baylor at Christian Brothers, 8
Bledsoe County at Wartburg Central, 8
Boyd Buchanan at Silverdale Baptist
Chattanooga Christian at Knoxville Webb
Chattanooga Prep at Copper Basin
Cleveland at Rhea County
East Ridge at East Hamilton
Grundy County at Providence Christian
Hixson at Loudon
Howard at Sequoyah
King’s Academy at Grace Academy
Knoxville Grace at Notre Dame
Lookout Valley at South Pittsburg, 8
McCallie at Brentwood Academy, 8
McMinn Central at Sweetwater
Meigs County at Stone Memorial
Oak Ridge at McMinn County
Oneida at Polk County
Red Bank at Signal Mountain
Sequatchie County at Marion County, 8
Soddy-Daisy at Central
Walker Valley at Ooltewah
Whitwell at Sale Creek
Bowdon at Dade County
Coahulla Creek at Ridgeland
Darlington at Northwest Whitfield
Gordon Lee at Bremen
LaFayette at Ringgold
Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe at Adairsville
Lassiter at Dalton
Murray County at Chattooga
Pickens at Christian Heritage
Sonoraville at Calhoun
Southeast Whitfield at Armuchee
Trion at Model
Saturday, Sept. 16
Tyner at Brainerd, 2