Don Sentell has been coaching youth football in Blount County for 44 years.
It blew him away.
“Oh, gosh!” he said. “Unreal. Unreal. Probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”
A cold, grey, soaking rain drenched Blount County for seven hours with no let up last Saturday morning. By the time Sentell’s Maryville Rebs took the field with the Knights for the Blount Today Midget Super Bowl later in the afternoon, the middle of the field at Heritage High School’s Jack Renfro Stadium was a mud pit.
A slippery, gooey, sticky mud.
And yet, the boys played.
“It was a slopfest,” Knights coach Doug LeQuire said. “It was a mess. I was proud of our guys.”
The worst playing conditions on record for the season-ending showcase for Blount County Parks & Recreation Grasshopper, Pee Wee and Midget teams had a fitting finale.
Playing the fourth and final game Saturday, the Rebs and Knights battled through two overtimes to decide the National Midgets champion. Maryville’s Hunter Longmire scored on a quarterback sneak in the second overtime, giving the Rebs a 19-12 lead.
Maryville forced a Knights fumble on second-and-goal on the ensuing possession, setting off a wild celebration on the Rebs sideline.
“They fumbled on second down, and it was pandemonium,” Sentell said.
Three other champions were crowned Saturday. Friendsville’s Falcons won the American League’s Pee Wee championship with a 6-0 victory over the Knights. The Heritage Indians shut out Alcoa, 19-0, to claim the American Midgets championship.
Fairview broke up a Maryville sweep of the National division championships when the Raiders blanked the Maryville Southerners, 12-0, for the National Pee Wee title.
The Maryville Lil’ Rebs edged Fairview, 18-12, in overtime last Wednesday for the National Grasshopper championship. In last Wednesday’s opening act to championship week, the Heritage Indians defeated the Knights, 8-0, for the American Grasshopper title.
It was Wednesday where what would take place Saturday got its genesis.
The American and National Grasshopper Super Bowls had originally been scheduled for Tuesday before a day-long rain forced a postponement. The rains eased Wednesday, but the playing field at Everett Recreation Center was plenty saturated, a mud pit - not quite what the teams would see Saturday - opening in front of the team bench on the far sideline.
Parker Rothery got the Indians through, scoring on a 1-yard sneak late in the fourth quarter, with Rothery passing to Bryce Belcher for the 2-point conversion and an 8-0 win.
The Indians drove the length of the field for the winning score, three times inducing the Knights into an offsides call to keep the drive alive.
“They were timing the count,” Heritage coach Paul Rothery said. “We had to do something to throw their timing off.”
The Lil’ Rebs and Raiders stepped it up in the following game in terms of big finish.
Will Combs is a name you’ll surely be hearing a lot of in coming years. The 8-year-old Fairview quarterback really put on a show, rushing for over 200 yards on a field that measured only 80 yards in length.
Thanks to a Combs, 70-yard scoring burst early in the half, the Raiders led, 6-0, with less than 20 seconds to go until intermission. That’s when the Lil’ Rebs Seth Orren scooped up a Combs lateral and took it 22 yards to tie the game at 6-6 at the break.
Orren put the Lil’ Rebs out front, 12-6, with a 3-yard run with 1:43 remaining in regulation. Fairview came right back, with Luke Hutsell beating the Lil’ Rebs’ defense to the pylon on fourth-and-goal at 5 with 41 seconds left to send it to overtime.
Overtime was nerve wracking, Orren said.
“My belly felt like it was on a rollercoaster,” he said.
On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line in overtime, Maryville quarterback Gregory Shiver scored on a sneak to give the Lil’ Rebs an 18-12 lead.
Hawkins Rose and Drew Crowder stopped Combs on fourth-and-goal from the 9 four plays later to secure Maryville’s sixth consecutive championship.
It’s gets tougher every year, Lil’ Rebs coach and league founder David Hunt said.
“We started getting some good coaches in here,” he said, “guys that really know what they’re doing.”
Even Fairview coach Casey Ensley found it difficult to be down.
“The kids fought hard,” he said. “It was an emotional rollercoaster throughout the game, and I think that took its toll.
Three days later, it was mud ball, all day, all the time.
The Heritage High School team played its season finale on Friday night. The clouds opened just before dawn Saturday morning. It wouldn’t stop raining until later that afternoon.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” LeQuire said. “I’ve never played in anything like that, and I know I’ve never coached in anything like it.”
The quicksand-like conditions near midfield forced both coaches to alter their strategy.
“My team was more of a finesse team,” Sentell said. “We like to throw it. We’re not an overpowering team that can come right at you.
“Once we got into overtime, once we got inside the 20, it was no problem. Nobody had been down there.”
The mud, the cold, the rain, eventually, none of it mattered, LeQuire said.
“At the end of the day, that’s the way football is supposed to be played,” he said.
The Rebs entered the game the five-time defending champions. Sentell’s teams are 59-1 the last six years.
They weren’t as dominant as in years past, but they were still plenty tough. With faith in his defense, factoring in the playing conditions, Sentell, after Maryville won the coin toss, elected to kickoff. The Knights made him regret it right away.
“They take the opening kickoff and drive the length of the field and score,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘God, what have I done?’”
Brenden Teeter capped a 10-minute, 65-yard opening drive with a 4-yard run to give the Knights a 6-0 lead. Chris Stephens tied it for the Rebs on a 4-yard run of his own with five minutes to play in the half.
Caleb Woody made a touchdown-saving tackle for the Knights late in the fourth that essentially forced overtime. Teeter again found the end zone for the Knights on the first possession of the extra session, with Longmire equalizing for Maryville on the ensuing possession with a touchdown pass to Adam Early.
The Rebs were right back at it with the teams switching who goes first to start the second overtime. Longmire provided the winning score soon after.
“That was a good ball game with two good teams in not so good conditions,” Sentell said. “In all honesty, it could have gone either way.”