Twenty-nine years have passed since the last time Greenback hoisted a state championship trophy.
That wait will have to continue following the Cherokees’ 62-27 loss to Dresden in the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl on Friday, but throughout this season, this current group of ’Kees were constantly compared to the 1987 team — the only squad in program history to finish undefeated.
With so much on the line, Greenback allowed The Daily Times to follow the team throughout their final practice, their trip to Cookeville and their pregame activities at Tucker Stadium to document the Cherokees’ run at history.
A brisk autumn wind sweeps over Cooper Field as the Cherokees exit the locker room and take the field before their walkthrough.
Hunter Willis heads toward midfield and grabs a ball. The senior quarterback, who also punts, takes a few steps back and then, just as he would any Friday under the lights, boots it down the field. Senior running back Kayne Roberts joins and the competition begins.
For being less than 24 hours away from the biggest game of their high school careers, the Cherokees are exceptionally loose. As Willis and Roberts punt, defensive lineman and left guard Derrell Bailey Jr. judges the kicks.
Roberts doesn’t get ahold of one cleanly and Bailey lets him hear about it. “That’s a Roane State (Community College) punt,” Bailey said, laughing.
Before long, practice is underway. The repetitions for offense, defense and special teams are meticulous, but through it all the Cherokees remain lax. Underclassmen not on the scout team crack jokes with starters in between plays as their final practice of the season winds down.
“They’re always loose on Thursdays,” Greenback co-head coach Brent Kilpatrick said. “They just want to play.”
Before they can play, though, the Cherokees have to make the 99-mile drive from Greenback to Cookeville. After practice ends, the team loads up the equipment trailer and stows their bags at the bottom of a coach bus.
Hundreds of people line the walkway from the locker room to the bus to send the team off. The high school band wraps up playing as the final players settle into their seats and the bus begins its journey.
“I think that just shows how much our community means to us and how much they believe in us and support us,” Willis says while the bus follows along in a long line of cars being escorted by police. “They did it last year and they showed out in full effect this year. They’re there to support us and we always try to give them what they deserve, so we go out there and play for everybody, not just us and the coaches, but for the fans and the community as well.”
The trip is exactly what you would expect from a group of high school guys. Hip-hop music plays from the back of the bus while conversations traverse the topics of Tennessee athletics, girls and what college is like. The next day’s game is rarely discussed.
The night ends with a dinner at Shoney’s in Crossville followed by the final leg of the trek. Once they reach the hotel in Cookeville, kickoff is just a mere 16 hours away.
The Cherokees get off the bus and usher into Tucker Field around 9 a.m. CT. They know the stadium well. A year ago, they made this exact trip and played Nashville Christian — a team Kilpatrick said was one of the best Class 1A teams he’s seen in “14 or 15 years” — in the BlueCross Bowl.
It did not go well.
Greenback turned the ball over six times and was decimated by an Eagles team that held a sizable talent advantage, 42-14. The memories of that loss, however, were non-existent as the Cherokees walked into Tennessee Tech’s locker room.
“We’re just focused on today, we’re not focused on what happened in the past,” Roberts said. “We can’t fix anything or do anything about the past, all we can do is look ahead. I have a good feeling about today, but we just have to keep playing.”
Therein lies the mantra of this Greenback team. Upon walking into the locker room, Roberts grabs a dry-erase marker and writes “Just Keep Playin’” on a whiteboard in the middle of the room.
Without that mentality, it is likely that the Cherokees would not be here. In both their quarterfinal and semifinal matchups, the ’Kees fell into a 14-0 hole, only to battle back and keep their season alive.
“That’s the main thing we go by,” Roberts said. “Games like we’re playing today, they’re going to make plays and stuff is going to happen, but you can’t let it get to you. You have to keep digging until the clock hits zero. You can’t think about the outcome, you just have to think about the next play.”
The atmosphere in the locker room is the complete opposite of what it was on the bus the night before. A few jokes get tossed around here and there, but for the most part it is all business.
As the moments before on-the-field warmups tick down, pads and helmets get strapped on. Roberts jumps up and down near the door and senior offensive lineman Daniel Summers screams, “Let’s lay it all out there.”
Warmups wrap up and the Cherokees file back into locker room. A chilling silence takes over the room as the team locks in. Willis walks around and gives a high-five to each of his teammates. The rest of the players and coaches sit at lockers and stare at the ground.
Finally, co-head coach Greg Ryan stands and gets his team huddled at the center of the room to deliver his pregame speech.
“What can a person say to get you ready to play?,” Ryan said. “… Last year, we came down here to play in the state championship. This year, we come down to win a state championship.”
Johnathan Clayton, a senior defensive back who suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the year, followed that speech with one of his own.
“There’s no game better than high school football, and there’s no better feeling than when you line up and the guys you are seeing have been beside you in classrooms K through 12,” Clayton said. “This is it guys. I’ve said all year, (play) like it’s the last time. It is the last time. Let’s go do it.”
The ‘Kees left the locker room fired up, but things did not go their way. The second state championship in program history will have to wait for another time, but that does not take anything away from this team’s accomplishments.
For the first time ever, Greenback played for a state championship in back-to-back seasons. Before this season, the ’Kees had never made consecutive semifinal appearances.
A Silver Ball may not be the trophy they wanted, but the Cherokees know that is nothing to scoff at.
“I’m proud to be here because there are a ton of teams that wish they could be here today,” Roberts said. “To go to state two years in a row, that’s an accomplishment. Everybody wants to win state, but it’s a long road to state.”