In coach Tony Brunetti’s 14 years as an assistant and head coach at Pearl-Cohn, he’s helped guide the Firebirds to a combined 97-70 record, 11 postseason appearances, two quarterfinal finishes and four semifinal trips.
Thanks to Pearl-Cohn’s 27-14 triumph over Memphis East last week, Brunetti can now add a state championship appearance to an already impressive resume.
“We finally got over the hump just by sticking together,” said Brunetti, who served four seasons as defensive coordinator under former Pearl-Cohn coach Maurice Fitzgerald, now at Stratford. “We’re not the biggest team in the world, but we’re a scrappy bunch and we’re confident and we believe in each other. Guys are playing positions they’ve never played before and they’re just giving it up for the team.
“Just good team ball; that’s what got us here.”
The Firebirds (10-4), looking for their first state championship since the program won back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997, will square off with Knoxville Catholic (10-4) in Saturday’s Class 4A championship.
Home-turf advantage? The BlueCross Bowl will all be neutral-field games.
Nashville Christian School, however, will have a slight advantage. The Eagles have already played a game at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium this season, a Region 5-1A contest against Monterey on Sept. 4.
The Eagles (13-1) will take on Greenback (12-2) at 11 a.m. Friday in the 1A state title game.
“We’ve been on that turf and in the stadium,” NCS coach Jeff Brothers said. “We just have to exercise the same mentality and focus. I don’t think it will be overwhelming or distracting. The best thing is that it might give them all a spark (having to play an early game). We will be staying in a hotel (Thursday night), so that will be different. I’m confident our leaders will step up and we’ll take care of business. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
A familiar sound: Audience members at the Mr. Football Awards Monday recognized the voice behind the podium as one they typically hear on Sunday afternoons.
For the ninth consecutive year, Mike Keith, voice of the Titans, emceed the Mr. Football ceremony.
Keith’s high school duties didn’t end Monday, however. He will once again be making the trip to Cookeville to call two of this weekend’s state championship games.
“I did 10 years of high school football and it just never gets old,” Keith said. “It’s a lot of fun. It reminds you of what’s really important about the game. You see the fans, you see the bands, the cheerleaders, mom, dad and grandma, the neighbors. It’s the best thing in the world.”
Star power: The Titans and the TSSAA had a pleasant surprise for all of the contestants Monday. As Keith took the podium a wave of excitement washed over the crowd when he announced that Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, linebacker Brian Orakpo and kicker Ryan Succop were on hand to help hand out the hardware.
Winners and runners-up had their pictures taken with the three Titans after the awards were handed out for each class.
False alarm: For at least a few seconds, Independence wide receiver Nate Johnson thought he had won the Class 5A Mr. Football back of the year award Monday.
Johnson was announced as the 5A winner, but it was revealed that Oak Ridge junior Tee Higgins was the winner, and that there had been an error in the script.
“It was just a mistype on the script that got overlooked,” TSSAA assistant executive director Matthew Gillespie said. “It’s very unfortunate and you feel for that family; that’s who you feel for most. We’re not pointing fingers at us or anybody else. It was just a mistake.”
The senior handled the incident gracefully and said while it was a tough pill to swallow, he couldn’t blame the voters for choosing Higgins.
“It was definitely a gut-shot,” Johnson said. “But the guy next to me, he deserved it. He worked just as hard as I did to get where he was and he came out with the Mr. Football Award.”
And he said coming up short won’t leave a chip on his shoulder as he heads into his first state championship game.
“This is just an accolade,” Johnson said. “I’m not really taking it as something I’m going to get mad about or that would make me play any different. I’m going to play the same.”
The Tennessean’s Sam Brown, Cecil Joyce and Michael Murphy contributed to this report.