CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Northeast is back in the playoffs after a season of transition last year.
And the Eagles are soaking up every bit of their postseason run. Last week, Northeast traveled to west Tennessee and knocked off Class 5A 1-seed Brighton, 36-29, to advance to Friday’s second round of the Class 5A playoffs. Now Northeast faces Region 7-5A rival Henry County, a team that drilled the Eagles 43-0 in Week 3.
But Northeast coach Terry Arrington is certain his team is much different than the one that welcomed the Patriots to its home field and watched as the Pats ran up and down it at will.
Northeast (6-5) is seeking not only an upset Friday night against one of the state’s top 5A teams, but a return to the state quarterfinals. The Eagles advanced to three state quarterfinal games under former coach Isaac Shelby, reaching the state semifinals (against Henry County) in 2013. But Shelby departed during that offseason and took over at Clarksville High. Arrington, who guided Kenwood to the state semifinals in 1999, would take over for Shelby and his first season with the Eagles last year resulted in a 2-8 record.
But like Houston County, Northeast was able to turn its fortunes around quickly, advancing to the 5A playoffs this season after beating Rossview in the regular-season finale that became a winner-take-all contest.
The Leaf-Chronicle caught up with Arrington for a Q-and-A session as his team prepares for the Patriots at 7 p.m. Friday in Paris.
Q: We talked during the summer, leading up to the start of the regular season, and you had some frustration with trying to find senior leadership and finding players who were fully invested in playing this season. But once the season began, those concerns seemed to fade with each passing week. What changed?
Arrington: “The biggest thing is that the kids have bought into and started believing in what we’re trying to do here. It takes time like with anything but once you identify those kids who are willing to work hard and do what is asked of them, you start seeing change. The summer was a little rough but we still felt we had the makings of a very good team.”
Q: It seemed to change for the positive pretty quickly. In the first four weeks of the season you guys were 2-2, which is pretty good considering what the outlook may have been before the season started.
Arrington: “But you also have to look at our schedule. The front end of our schedule was much tougher than the back end.” (Northeast played Father Ryan, Henry County, Kenwood, Centennial and Brentwood in five consecutive weeks. All five made the playoffs and four have advanced to Friday’s second round). “I thought that, even though we lost, the Brentwood game we started to put it all together. That was the game that I felt that we were going to be pretty good by the way we competed.”
Q: What has been the team’s biggest turnaround during the course of this season?
Arrington: “Look at our turnovers. We were averaging about three or four turnovers a game in the first month of the season. We’re averaging one a game now. We’re basically winning the turnover battle, and if you don’t give teams extra possessions, usually you’re putting yourself in positions to win games.”
Q: That first season you had last year with the Eagles, did it feel like there was sort of an emotional hangover from Shelby’s departure, meaning was it difficult getting through to players who were used to a certain system and had success in that system?
Arrington: “Anytime you have a coaching change, regardless of how it is, where it is or who it is, it takes at least a year for you to get used to the players and the players to get used to you. Last year I spent that time trying to find out what our kids could do and what they couldn’t do. Last year we were searching for what would fit these kids.”
Q: So the seeds of this year’s success were planted last year?
Arrington: “I think that was the beginning, yeah. I also think the work the kids did in the offeseason, in spring and into the summer also helped. Brentwood was the game that we could physically see some improvement. I know we lost (23-3) but the improvement was there. And from the Centennial game on, we made steady progress as a team.”
Q: Can you draw any comparisons to this team with that Kenwood team you took to the state semis in 1999?
Arrington: “They’re two completely different teams. That Kenwood team had a lot of seniors and a ton of experience. There were guys on that team that had been through it all. They had been through big games before so nothing rattled them. This team is much younger. We have some upperclassmen that have seen some playoff victories at Northeast but the overall experience isn’t quite the same as with Kenwood. But maybe the one similarity is that we play Henry County again after playing them in Week 3. With Kenwood, we played Pearl-Cohn in the second round. We lost to Pearl-Cohn in overtime in Week 2 of the regular season (in 1999). Then we beat them in the playoffs and then beat Whites Creek in the quarterfinals.”
Q: Now you face the Patriots Friday. That program is extremely familiar with all of Clarksville’s teams and they beat the Eagles in a game that your seniors remember well two years ago. How do you go to Paris and upset this team?
Arrington: “You look at our team and you could have said that nine weeks ago, we weren’t a very good football team. Then if you saw us travel nearly two hours to Brighton and beat them, you’d think that’s a pretty good football team. We know what Henry County is about. They are about physical-ness so there will be a lot of one-on-one battles and I told our kids who have to win our one-on-one battles. If we can maintain control of the offensive and defensive line and not turn the ball over, we’ll have a shot at this.”
Reach Prep writer George Robinson at 931-245-0747 and on Twitter @Cville_Sports.
Quinton Cross: The sophomore running back leads the team in rushing with 717 yards and 11 TDs.
Sabastian Bacino: The senior running back has 445 yards rushing and 3 TDs but also leads the team with 13 receptions for 184 yards.
Benji Burchwell: The Eagles’ quarterback has thrown for 811 yards (69-for-123) with 5 TDs.
Northeast’s secondary is among the best in the city in takeaways with 11 interceptions this season.