Alcoa made history last Friday night, becoming the first Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association team to win five consecutive state championships.
It could be eight in a heartbeat.
Heck, it could be nine.
The Tornadoes return 13 starters, including Mr. Football tight end Tyler Robinson and BlueCross Bowl Offensive Most Valuable Player Jaron Toney, from a team that overwhelmed Milan, 28-14, last Friday night at Middle Tennessee State University.
The Tornadoes limited the state’s third-highest scoring offense this season to one first down through three quarters. Milan’s top running back finished with 3 yards rushing. Its quarterback was 2-of-11 passing for 4 yards. The longest pass from scrimmage for the Bulldogs was a 3-yard reception by running back J.W. Williams.
Next year, when Alcoa moves to Class 3A for the playoffs, the other team might not even score.
Gary Rankin has built a budding dynasty the likes of which the state may have never seen in his three seasons as coach. Forget the championships. Take a good look at the middle school program that is sending him his players.
Middle school coach Tim Russell is sending 30 eighth-graders onto the high school next season, and as many as seven of them could be major college prospects. There is a pair of running backs coming who are off the scale. There’s a receiver on the way who is going to be at least 6-foot-5 by his senior year in high school. The guys on the line are going to be huge.
For three years now, Russell and his staff have sent better and better players, in larger and larger groups, onto Rankin for instruction. While Russell and his staff deserve their share of credit, there’s little question it’s what Rankin has done at the top that’s lit the fire, and it’s not the championships that’s the source of the flame.
Rankin’s legacy at Alcoa was cemented with one stunning decision last season. Receiver/defensive back and major college prospect Brain Sommer was dismissed from the team three games into year after being arrested on campus. This wasn’t simply a player who could make the coach or the school look bad if allowed to remain with the team. This was a guy with scholarship offers on the table from Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama and everybody else.
Rankin was genuine when he wished Sommer well, but he had rules and the team was moving on.
Kids see that. Parents see that. If a coach won’t think twice about dismissing the state’s eighth-best player from the team, you know it’s about more than just winning games.
Think you’re special?
Think your abilities as an athlete warrant some special consideration?
This isn’t your coach.
Really, it’s not.
There are no games with this guy. It makes the player whose career is largely over after high school - the vast majority of prep football players - push harder. You know the coach will notice. It makes the ones destined for athletic stardom push even harder.
Alcoa has produced far too many talented football players through the years who’ve had little left as young men after high school. My old high school isn’t Dodge City. There’s as good a kid there as you’ll find anywhere. We’ve had some things that have needed addressing for a while, though.
With Rankin’s hire three years ago, just the man to address them at a football-crazy school took the helm.
Now to why that matters so much next season.
Toney was a deserving recipient of Friday’s most valuable player award. Rush for 100 yards against a defense like the Bulldogs had, you’ve got some moves. You’re also pretty tough.
“I ain’t going to lie,” Toney said. “They came out striking, and they had me worried a little bit.”
Alcoa’s offensive line, which returns five starters next season in juniors Marcel Walden, Justin Hopkey and Justin Marsh, sophomore Derrick Evans and Robinson, was quick to return fire. His most valuable player award is as much theirs as his, Toney said.
“My linemen opened up a lot of holes and gave me some chances to run around,” he said. “That’s why I got this.”
Toney and all those returning linemen are enough in themselves to make Alcoa a threat for a sixth straight crown. Sophomore Taharin Tyson is another. Backup running back/linebacker Darrell Warren is another. Sophomore receiver Steven Isom is another. Junior linebacker Deontra Herbert is another.
The Tornadoes used six backs en route to producing the state’s highest-scoring offense this season — 622 points. They could have used eight.
Freshman speedster Vanderbilt Hambrick rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on just two carries in game this past season. Junior Daniel Rockymore is likely to be heard from next season as well, along with freshmen-to-be Jarod Crenshaw and Ezekiel Koko, who paced the middle school to an unbeaten 9-0 season this fall.
Yes, they’re only eighth-graders, but wait until you see just what kind of eighth-graders these two are.
Eighth-grader Kenny Dean, who caught the game-winning pass against Sevier County in the middle school championship game, is already 6-foot-1.
The high school sustained some significant losses with seniors Sam Thompson, Chase James, Conner Miles, Daniel Cline, Jeff Hickman and Adrian Womac each concluding their careers as Tornadoes last week.
Thompson compiled a yards-per-catch average over the course of his career that borders on staggering, something like 30-plus per grab. James, whose 79-yard punt return all but finished Milan last week, became an enticing prospect at quarterback for the fortunate college that makes it happen. At 6-2 with the open field speed of a deer, he’s got a tremendous upside.
Miles, Cline, Hickman and Womac were the heart of a defense that yielded one rushing touchdown this season, the one Milan quarterback Justin Coleman scored on a 2-yard sneak late in the fourth quarter with the outcome of the championship game all but decided.
There are those whose impact has yet to be fully felt. Sophomore Austin Tallant is a slick, strong-armed passer who’ll likely slip into James’ shoes with little trouble. Sophomore tight end/defensive end Jonivan Henry, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, may one day prove the biggest sleeper in the bunch.
It takes a special coach to keep his head with all that talent swirling around him.
Six in a row?