There was a time when a Rutherford County prep football team reaching the BlueCross Bowl seemed like a foregone conclusion.
From 2000-2008, a Rutherford County high school reached the TSSAA’s state football championships every season but one.
However, in recent seasons this trend has snapped. Since 2009, Rutherford County football teams have reached the football title game just once when Smyrna finished runner-up in Class 6A in 2010.
Sure, most concede that some of the best high school football in the state is played within the county lines. The all-Rutherford County District 7-AAA has even been recognized nationally as one of the toughest leagues in the nation.
But no longer can one say that a Rutherford County team playing for a gold ball is as common as death and taxes.
“You have got to have a lot of luck,” said Oakland football coach Thomas McDaniel, whose 2008 Patriots are the last Rutherford County team to win a football championship. “This county has been fortunate to win a lot of them.
“But it’s so hard to do that, sometimes you take it for granted. I think sometimes kids take it for granted. It’s not easy.”
No, it’s much harder.
It takes hard work, sweat, and yes a lot of luck.
New playoff format
There are several factors that could be part of what’s transpired since 2008. The TSSAA adopted a controversial new playoff system, going from five classes to six for the schools in Division I, which includes all schools that do not offer need-based financial aid.
The new system, though, came with some quirks.
For starters, many teams qualify through a wild-card system, which includes a criteria that benefits teams that can schedule easy victories. That quickly met trouble for the elite teams in District 7-AAA. Long-time rivals quickly cut ties.
It forced Rutherford County’s top teams to not only schedule some of the other elite programs in-state, but also out of state.
“I’m not complaining about who we have to play,” Siegel coach Greg Wyant said. “The coaches in this district I think all take pride in playing teams that are tougher opponents. There is a little pride factor in our district about that.
“None of our coaches shy away from good competitive teams.”
However, that combined with an already tough, physical district slate takes its toll on teams.
Teams in this county beat each other up, forcing them to often go into the semifinals shorthanded.
And in the playoffs, earlier meetings between Rutherford County foes has become more frequent. During Siegel’s run to the 6A semifinals last season, the Stars faced a Murfreesboro opponent each of the first three rounds.
“We used to meet in the quarterfinals,” Blackman football coach Philip Shadowens said. “Whoever won had a good chance to go on and play for a championship. Now, we play in the second round and third round. We beat each other to death. That’s after doing it in the regular season.
“It’s hard to go week in and week out and play at that high level.”
Perhaps the elephant in the room resides in Blount County. Since the creation of the sixth class, Rutherford County’s final postseason team has fallen to the same team — Maryville.
In 2009 and 2011, Riverdale fell to Maryville in the semifinals. Maryville edged Smyrna in the 2010 championship game. And Siegel lost in a shootout to the Rebels in 2012.
Prior to 2009, Maryville participated in Class 4A while Rutherford County’s teams were in 5A. Maryville has won two of the four 6A titles.
“Maryville has a good football program and is a proven winner,” Shadowens said.
McDaniel concedes in 2008 his Patriots caught fire at the right time. They were on no one’s radar when the season started as a state title contender.
But things lined up and went their way.
That hasn’t been the case, though, recently.
Injuries to key players have hampered area teams the past three seasons.
In 2010, Smyrna linebacker Deon Meadows, a Mr. Football finalist, did not play in the semifinals or championship game because of an injury. A year later, Riverdale quarterback Dillon Woodruff missed the semifinals after sustaining a knee injury the week before in the quarterfinals. And last year, Siegel quarterback Brent Stockstill played in the semifinals, but was noticeably hampered with a torn ACL.
“The last three years we’ve had a key player go down and not play or play injured in the semifinals,” Shadowens said. “That’s the result of physicality and great competition.
“I think we still have by far the best district in the state. We usually have three teams and sometimes four that are good enough to be a semifinal team. I do think we’ll have another gold ball winner, and in the near future.”