Have Tornadoes become state’s most feared team?

Alcoa manager Raheem Lewis guards the locker room door at halftime during last year’s Tornado win over Christian Academy of Knoxville.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Alcoa manager Raheem Lewis guards the locker room door at halftime during last year’s Tornado win over Christian Academy of Knoxville.

Earlier this summer, the Chattanooga Times Free Press ran a front page story in its Sunday edition about two of its area high schools going to great lengths to avoid playing Alcoa.

After Signal Mountain was told by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association an enrollment increase would force it to move up in classification to the one containing the defending Class 3A champion Tornadoes, defending 2A champion Eagles chose instead to the jump to 4A.

Class 1A champion South Pittsburg searched high and low to find a 10th game to complete its 2011 schedule. When told Alcoa was still looking for a game, the Pirates decided to just play nine.

It gets like that when you’ve won 43 consecutive games and seven state titles in a row. Even Blount County neighbors Heritage and William Blount, a pair of 6A schools, won’t schedule the Tornadoes anymore.

It’s easy to begin feeling invincible in such circumstances. At which point, it also becomes easy to be humbled, Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said.

High school football team across Tennessee put on the pads for the first time on Monday. With the Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Football Jamboree scheduled for next Friday at Alcoa’s Goddard Field, there isn’t much time to prepare. Season openers for all four area schools kickoff the weekend of Aug. 19, with the Mountaineers on the road at Jefferson County, the Governors at Sevier County.

Alcoa and defending 6A champion Maryville open a day later with the inaugural Airport Motor Mile Bowl at Maryville’s Shields Stadium, with the Tornadoes meeting Cleveland and top-10 rated national quarterback Chad Voytik in the first game of the doubleheader. The Rebels, with senior and North Carolina commitment Patton Robinette at quarterback, follow against defending Division II champion Webb School of Knoxville in the nightcap.

Alcoa and Maryville meet in the annual Battle of Pistol Creek the following Saturday.

This season’s first two games are enough in themselves for the Tornadoes not to believe hype concerning their run of success the last seven years, and the schedule doesn’t get a whole lot easier once the Rebels leave Goddard Field.

Alcoa renews the rivalry with Austin-East in the season’s fourth week. Sept 23 will bring with it a visit to defending Class 4A champion Greeneville, with Fulton coming to Goddard Field in Week 9. The Tornadoes conclude the regular season at Christian Academy of Knoxville, an annual showdown for the district crown that’s more than lived up to the billing the last five years.

Eight straight?

Two games in a row is no lock against that kind of schedule.

There’s a matter of the competition, then there’s the holes that must be filled from last year’s title run. Mr. Football running back/defensive end Darrell Warren is now a freshman at Kentucky. Backfield mate Taharin Tyson is now a freshman fullback at Chattanooga.

Former Tornado Austin Tallant, unbeaten as the starter at quarterback, is a freshman at Tennessee Tech. His top receiver, 6-foot-4 deep threat Steven Isom, is at Carson-Newman, Mr. Football lineman finalist Derek Evans at Appalachian State. Compounding matters, former tornado Jonivan Henry, an elite pass rusher in his own right at the end opposite Warren last season, also won’t be back.

Mr. Football finalist back Vanderbilt Hambrick is a lot to rebuild around. Junior Jarod Crenshaw, defensive most valuable player of last season’s BlueCross Bowl, also returns, but there are a few too many questions for the Tornadoes to begin thinking themselves unbeatable.

There’s a new quarterback to be named, a new fullback, two defensive backs and a few offensive linemen. Alcoa saw three of its backs — Warren, Tyson and Hambrick — rush for better than 1,000 yards a year ago. With two of those components now off to college, will the Tornadoes become a passing team?

When asked about scheduling the Tornadoes, South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider was quoted in the Free Press story as saying: “Why would we want any part of that monster if we don’t have to play them? That’s just where their program is. Nobody in their right mind wants a piece of them.”

It would be prudent if none of the Tornadoes began to buy into the kind of thinking.

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