Two familiar names stand between Greenback and a fourth straight appearance in the TSSAA Class 1A quarterfinal round of playoffs.
Coalfield and McKinney are words that raise the hackles of any Cherokee.
In the past three seasons, Greenback (9-2) has defeated the Yellow Jackets (8-3) in regular season play and then ended Coalfield's season on its longer postseason runs, including the state championship in 2017 and last year’s semifinal appearance.
In 2013 and 2014, Coalfield had the last laugh, choking Cherokee playoff hopes after Greenback had won both regular season games.
Greenback and Coalfield have met in the playoffs 10 times since 1987, including six times this decade. No teams have met more often in the history of the TSSAA playoffs.
Coalfield is the No. 3 seed from Region 2 but defeated Region 1 runner-up Hancock County 42-6 to earn this year’s rematch.
For the past several years, Coalfield has been powered by a McKinney. Parker McKinney, now the starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman at Eastern Kentucky, bedeviled Greenback with his arm and legs. In the 2017 state championship season, Coalfield was the only Class 1A team to score over 30 points against the Cherokees and did so twice.
Now the Yellowjackets are led by younger brother Peyton McKinney, who will be a point of focus for the Cherokees. Peyton McKinney was a receiver for his brother’s passes but moved into the quarterback role last season.
“(Peyton McKinney) is probably their best athlete and the best way to get him the ball is to have him at quarterback,” Greenback coach Greg Ryan said. “He’s very capable of throwing it, not as well as his brother, but he’s more of an athlete playing quarterback. So you have to contain the rush lanes because he is going to look to pull it down quick and run the ball.”
Ryan said the Coalfield offense doesn’t have a big variety of plays, instead focusing on a power running game with some perimeter plays and short passes or screens.
“What they do well is give you different formations and different types of motions and shifts to try to confuse you, your alignment, and to get your eye discipline off when they run the same 10 plays,” Ryan said. “So, for us defensively it’s about communication and getting lined up and understanding where we’re supposed to be looking and playing.”
Greenback hopes starting middle linebacker Josiah Millsaps can help the defense stay aligned. Millsaps and his freshman brother Jase Millsaps were injured in a car accident prior to last week’s win over Unaka. Ryan said he was unsure but hopeful his linebacker would be cleared to play.
In the regular season matchup of these rivals, Greenback won 45-20 despite drawing 11 penalties, including several unsportsmanlike conduct calls.
Greenback scored early after a quick Coalfield turnover and took advantage of several big plays, with four of its seven touchdowns covering 40 yards or more. Braden Carnes was 12-for-19 for 268 yards with five scoring tosses.
“The game was more competitive than what the score was,” Ryan said. “They had some turnovers, and we had 11 penalties which obviously kills you. Our kids felt sore the weekend after playing the game, and that’s not always the case.”
Ryan used the word “chippy” to describe how the typical Coalfield contests go and referred to past years’ games that included Coalfield player ejections.
“There’s been some bad blood between us and Coalfield because of those reasons,” Ryan said. “Not to say that we’re perfect or innocent of everything by any means, but we encourage our kids to keep their mouths shut and just play the game. We hope that Coalfield does the same.”
The coaching staff worked on players to play clean and eliminate silly penalties before the prior Coalfield game,
"But then we ended up with 11,” Ryan said. “So I don’t know if it fell on deaf ears at Coalfield, but the guys have to really understand it, this week. We expect Coalfield to bring their “A” game so we’ve got to bring ours.”