They said it couldn’t be done. Not this year.
Not for Alcoa. They lost too much, so this was going to be a rebuilding year.
Not for Maryville. There was too much pressure, and they didn’t have a running game.
Surely, Alcoa couldn’t replace 2A Mr. Football Chris Shiverdecker, Division I signees Rae Sykes and Kyrus Lanxter and, early this season, Division I prospect Brian Sommer, who was dismissed from the team.
Surely, Maryville couldn’t make it through another unblemished season relying solely on Brent Burnette’s arm and his corps of wide receivers.
But it did.
Alcoa and Maryville both made history by becoming the first teams to win four consecutive state championships in Tennessee. Maryville went undefeated, pushing its winning streak to 60 as the senior class failed to lose a game in their four years. The Tornadoes only defeat came at the hands of the Rebels early in the year.
So, maybe, everyone should doubt these two programs and their remarkable coaching staffs again next season.
Undoubtedly, there will be naysayers again who will claim Alcoa will fall without star quarterback/defensive back Randall Cobb and running back/linebacker Troy Hodge.
They will assert that Maryville won’t be able to break the Tennessee record for consecutive wins — 64 in a row by Shelbyville Bedford County Training Academy — because they lose so many offensive weapons to graduation – Burnette, tight end Aaron Douglas, receiver Stephen Shiver, receiver/punt returner Tyler Clendenen, receiver Caleb Clement and running back Tim Rodrigues.
Just don’t tell that to the underclassmen who will be back next year.
Alcoa loses nine seniors, but it lost some dynamic players who starred on both sides of the ball. Along with Cobb and Hodge, two-way linemen Seth Coulter and Josh Kincannon and key defensive end Josh Dossett won’t be back.
The most likely candidate to take the reins from Cobb will be junior Chase James. Also a starting cornerback, James saw time at quarterback in nearly every game this season due to Alcoa’s ability to rout most of its opponents.
“There is a lot of weight on my shoulders to perform next year…some big shoes to fill,” James said. “I have to stay in the weight room and get a little faster during the off-season. The coaches tell me I’m almost there, so I just have to keep working hard.”
James will have two significant receiving threats returning next season in Sam Thompson and Tyler Robinson. Thompson, who also is the starting safety and punter, is a speed threat on the outside. Earlier in the season, he was averaging over 30 yards per catch. Robinson will be a huge target in the middle of the field for the Tornadoes. The sophomore, who was also the 2A BlueCross Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player from his defensive end position, is already being courted by major Division I colleges.
Current sophomore Jaron Toney and freshman Darrell Warren will fill Hodge’s void in the backfield, while Deontra Herbert, sophomore, and Taharin Tyson, freshman, splitting time this season at fullback. Herbert also was one of the team’s best defenders in the playoffs, recording six tackles in the championship game.
Tyson, like all of the young Tornadoes, is confident about next year’s possibilities.
“I think we have a pretty good chance of returning to Murfreesboro,” he said. “A lot of young players got significant playing time this season. Now, we just have to do like we did this year and work hard in the summer and in the weight room. Next year’s seniors have to do like this year’s and step up; the young players have to step up just like this year.”
“It’s going to be tough, but, somehow, we always find players to replace the (previous year’s) seniors,” Herbert said.
Senior Seth Coulter doesn’t think his graduating class is leaving the cupboard bare. Instead, he sees only promising things to come for the young players on this year’s squad.
“Alcoa is going to be a force for years to come,” Coulter said moments after relinquishing the golden football trophy from his grasp.
While the players all appear to be confident in a return trip to the state championship, defensive coordinator Brian Nix knows it is a tough road that lies ahead.
“It gets harder every year to fight off complacency,” he said, “but the good thing is kids don’t want to be the group to let down the winning tradition.
“I think it depends on the senior class and players that have been on the sideline in the past. We tell them that they have been standing on the sideline watching while the Brandon Warrens, Shiverdeckers and Cobbs have been winning you state championship rings. Now, it’s your turn to go and earn one.”
For the returning players on the Maryville sideline, next season will not only be a chance to continue the championship reign but the 60-game winning streak.
This year’s juniors will look to copy the example set by the seniors, who finished off their careers without losing a game.
While Maryville has been a powerhouse program over the last decade, there may not be another team that has had to replace as much firepower.
The offense loses seven starters and seven players listed as second-string on the depth chart. More important than the quantity of players is who they lose.
The offense loses Burnette, Douglas, Clendenen, Shiver, Clement and Rodrigues. Clement, Clendenen and Shiver must also be replaced on the defensive side of the ball, along with three of the starting four defensive linemen.
“It’s going to be tough to replace the seniors,” said junior do-it-all specialist Chris Jordan, who plays receiver, defensive back, kick returner and, often, hero. “They were the heart and soul of the team this season, but we will just have to have guys step in and fill the holes if we want to get back.”
While there are several areas Maryville coach George Quarles and his staff will have to address, high schools must reload on a regular basis. One key to Maryville’s success has been Quarles’ ability to get playing time for younger, less experienced players as the season progresses.
With experienced, lesser-known players, Quarles adds some key returners, including stalwart defensive end Justin Smith, all three starting linebackers, three starting offensive linemen and junior running back Thomas Shuler, who rushed for 100-plus yards the last four games.
“Our seniors this season were great, but when everyone wants to play and is willing to work hard to get better, we can replace them and try to (win the championship) again,” Smith said. “We never know before the year starts, but it seems like every year we find a way.
“We’re going to be working hard this summer – every morning at 6 a.m., running and lifting weights – to see if we can get back (to Murfreesboro) and win it again.”
Junior linebacker Jeffrey Booker agreed that it is going to be all about the summer workouts.
“We’re going for five in a row next year. That’s history, but we’re going to have to work hard in the offseason to get back,” he said.
With a tough summer regimen and challenging practices waiting, players from both schools know they have a rough path to traverse if they want to make it back to Murfreesboro.
But, when people tell them it can’t be done, they can look back to this season and find solace in knowing that if the fourth was exhilarating when people doubted them, the fifth will be even better.