Being a bridesmaid instead of the bride is a position no football team wants, particularly in consecutive seasons.
The Nashville Christian School football team would have just liked to have been in that position the previous three seasons.
Having lost in the state semifinals three straight years (2012-14), the Eagles finally “got over the hump” this season, reaching the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl state championship game.
“We had leadership in front of them (seniors) that was strong, and they were determined to extend that leadership,” said NCS coach Jeff Brothers. “Leading up to spring and summer you could see a bond forming. The seniors shared it with the team. We have underclassmen with a lot of experience, and there’s a shared unity among all four classes.
“The experience of coming so close and coming up short, the guys have searched for validity for their hard work, and it’s good to see how humble they remain.”
Nashville Christian (13-1) will play Greenback (12-2) on Friday at 11 a.m. at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, the first of six Division I BlueCross Bowl games over a span of two days.
Prior to Brothers’ arrival in 2010, Nashville Christian hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2000 and was a combined 7-23 the three seasons before he took the helm. His 2010 squad had around 30 players.
Since his arrival, the Eagles have gone 62-16 and reached the playoffs — at least the second round — each season.
However, the semifinals had been a huge roadblock for NCS. In 2012 the Eagles went 11-3, falling to Huntingdon 35-7. The next two seasons Brothers’ squad went into the semis unbeaten before falling to eventual champion Union City (42-34 in 2013, 35-0 in 2014).
“After last year when we got beat, the next week we all said, ‘That can’t happen again,’” said NCS senior center/linebacker Nate Hargrove, who is a four-year starter.
“We worked to get bigger, faster and stronger. Once we got together for practice, we said, ‘This is our year.’ We were motivated. We’ve believed since the beginning of the year.”
Added NCS senior quarterback Kyle Tidwell, “Having to deal with a (35-0) loss to Union City, we had the entire offseason to think about it, how we managed just 29 yards in that game. We conditioned hard and worked hard in the weight room to get better.”
Union City graduated a bulk of its starting lineup after last season’s 1A title, but NCS faithful still felt the road to the team’s first BlueCross Bowl appearance would have to go through the Tornadoes.
Union City, however, suffered a 28-24 loss to Peabody in the second round of this season’s playoffs. Peabody ultimately reached the semifinals, where Nashville Christian rolled to a 42-7 victory that propelled the Eagles to their first state title game appearance.
“I wanted to play Union City,” said Nashville Christian senior standout linebacker/running back Daniel Bituli, a Tennessee commitment and Mr. Football 1A Lineman of the Year winner. “We felt we could play any team and beat them. But, after Union City lost, we just had to get ready for Peabody.”
Balanced offense has been a key to Nashville Christian’s success. The Eagles have scored 34 points or more in 12 of their 14 games, topping the 40-point mark in 10 of those (surpassing 60 twice).
“No team can game plan for just one player,” Tidwell said. “We have four running backs who can all get it done. Mareio (McGraw) is one of the fastest backs in the state, and Daniel (Bituli) is one of the biggest backs in the state. We have a good mixture of size and speed. Our wide receivers have played well all year and they’re sure-handed. We know they can catch anything up in the air.”
However, Greenback could be a tough matchup. The Cherokees have posted four shutouts and held opponents to single digits in seven of 14 games.
Greenback all but shut down arguably 1A’s most explosive offense in Columbia Academy, defeating the Bulldogs 21-14 in the semifinals. Prior to the loss, Columbia Academy had topped the 40-point mark in all but one game and had scored 159 points in its previous three playoff games.
“They had a great plan for Columbia Academy and they executed it well,” Brothers said. “They were physical up front. They stayed patient in their offensive schemes. They’re a good team, no question.”
Added Tidwell, “They’re a physical team. They beat a good Columbia Academy team that many expected to get to the championship game. They play hard — they never quit. They’re here for a reason, but we’re here for a reason, too. We expect this to be a 48-minute game.”
However the outcome, Nashville Christian has put itself in an unfamiliar position, one that the Eagles were so close to reaching the last three seasons.
“We’ve felt some pressure, but we’re ready to take it on,” said Bituli, whose team has the opportunity to win the first team championship in any sport at NCS. “We know what this means to the Nashville Christian community.”
Added Tidwell, “We think we’re capable of beating anybody in the state. The last few years have been tough. We’re just glad to get over the hump.”
NASHVILLE CHRISTIAN (13-1)
Matchup: 1A title game vs. Greenback (12-2), 11 a.m. Friday
Top players: Daniel Bituli (Sr. RB/LB), Kyle Tidwell (Sr. QB), Mareio McGraw (Jr. RB/DB), Nate Hargrove (Sr. C/LB)
Points scored: 612 (43.8)
Points allowed: 135 (9.6)
Playoff results: Def. Clarksville Academy 64-8, Huntingdon 34-7, Wayne County 34-21, Peabody 42-7