One year, Summit made school history by participating in the school’s first ever state football championship.
This year’s repeat run has come seemingly by defying history.
The Summit Spartans (13-1) are firing on all cylinders as they head to the Blue Cross Bowl Class 5A state championship. Awaiting them on the big stage will be the Oak Ridge Wildcats (11-3), with the two set to collide this Friday at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville at 7 p.m.
Given the crazy year that has been, both teams are appreciative of not only making it this far but also the opportunity to even play at all this season.
“It’s extra special to make it this year, and extra special to get through this season,” Summit head coach Brian Coleman noted during a media video conference call to discuss Friday’s championship matchup. “With all the challenges we faced, really starting back in June when we didn’t even know if there would be a season.
“Then to get through the season and sometimes you lose a kid on a Wednesday or Thursday to contact tracing, you got to throw together a depth chart of some kind. We had two or three games get canceled. We had one game get cancelled on a Friday at 1:30 p.m. Just a letdown to the kids on those days. Then when the playoffs started, we were worried about the rust and how our kids were going to react. They just fell hungry. They were definitely felt like they just wanted to play.”
There was a point when the Spartans simply couldn’t play at all, through no fault of their own. Four of their 10 regular season games were canceled due to opposing programs enduring COVID-19 outbreaks. By the time the postseason rolled around, Summit had played just one game in six weeks.
It was a far cry from the historic run enjoyed one year prior, when the Spartans rode a 35-0 shutout win of Lincoln County into the 5A playoffs. Three straight postseason wins on the road preceded Summit’s showdown with Dyer County, capitalizing on a late fumble to secure a win and its first ever state championship berth.
Twelve months later, Summit went into its first-round game versus Hillwood having not played a snap in four weeks. More worrisome than the games that were canceled due to COVID was getting to the field without having to reconfigure your lineup due to a last-minute shakeup.
“You get to the playoffs and worry about being at full strength,” admits Coleman. “It’s hard to win a playoff game when you are at full strength. That’s another worry. I know all of the coaches are worried about that. It’s extra special for the teams for the teams who’ve made it, that’s for certain.
“For us, we couldn’t even get through the region (without canceled games). The Page cancellation was on a Thursday. We called around everyone that didn’t have a game. We were ready to get on a bus and ride anywhere in the state just to play. The Shelbyville game was a Friday at 1:30. Thank goodness we made it through the playoffs without any cancellation.”
From there came scares of a different kind—the kind that builds character, and championship teams.
Summit enjoyed two dominant wins to once again reach the quarterfinal round, before having to dig deep into its bag of tricks to remain alive in the postseason. The Spartans trailed late on the road versus the Beech Buccaneers before junior quarterback Destin Wade—a Class 5A Mr. Football finalist—found Caleb Jolley in the end zone with just 0:27 to go, en route to a 36-29 win in an instant classic.
One week later, Summit fended off a stubborn, hosting Henry County squad to win 35-21 in securing its second consecutive state finals appearance after having never advanced that far in the school’s first eight years of existence.
Last year’s trip was taken more as a learning lesson, the first of many Blue Cross Bowl games to come. The Spartans were manhandled by powerhouse Knoxville Central, losing 30-7 and settling for Class 5A runner-up.
The memories of that game are enough for a squad who’d returned most of its starters to head to Cookeville knowing what to expect this time around, even if versus a different program.
“It helps a lot,” Coleman believes of the core of his team having experienced that championship game feeling. “A lot of these kids started, a lot of these kids played. It left a bad taste in our mouth.
“I think that trip to Cookeville helped in our Henry Co. game. It’s helped in this playoff run. Being in that game, it’s helped envision in their head, not something we could do last year. Heck, last year we couldn’t get started until the second quarter and we were down 24 points.”
The transformation of junior quarterback Destin Wade is the most obvious difference in a team that has built upon its state finalist run from one season ago. The 5A Mr. Football finalist was a menace on the ground as a sophomore but has become a true dual threat this season.
Through 10 full games, Wade has thrown for 1,255 yards and 18 touchdowns on 74-of-118 (62.7%) passing, with just five interceptions—all coming in two games. The junior stud has handled the rock well during the postseason, not throwing any interceptions and committing just one turnover—a fumble versus Beech on a fourth-and-goal quarterback draw, though in a game where he ran for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Wade has scored at least one touchdown both in the air and on the ground in all four postseason games.
“Coming from last year, we relied more on his legs. In the offseason, we wanted to give him the opportunity to be a college quarterback,” Coleman explains of the transformation. “The best opportunity was to start reading defenses, develop his arm strength.
“He’s worked hard, we’ve worked hard to get him there. That was a focal point during the off-season.”
Wade has also run for 1,414 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, including 701 yards and 7 TDs in the postseason.
Greatly aiding his cause throughout a season which has garnered nationwide attention are the efforts of his two favorite targets—Brady Pierce (19 receptions. 416 yards, 7 TDs) and Caleb Jolley (19 rec., 279 yards, 4 TDs). Junior running back Brandon King (523 rushing yards, 2 TDs) rounds out a potent Summit offense averaging nearly 34 points per game.
They will need to be firing on all cylinders against a red hot Oak Ridge squad playing its first championship game since 2005.
“They held their opponent last week to nothing,” points out Coleman of the Wildcats 14-0, win over South-Doyle in the school’s bid to bring home its first championship since 1991. “If you’re going to do that in the semifinal that’s saying something, They have a very good defense, you can tell by that by previous film and previous scores.
“Schematically something things will have to change. We’re going to do some things different without giving anything away.”
The one thing Summit won’t do is dismiss the gift of being able to play football in December, during a pandemic-riddled year when most schools didn’t envision even taking the field. It'll also be Summit's last year in the 5A playoffs, with a move up to 6A on the way next fall.
“You get to the playoffs and worry about being at full strength,” theorizes Coleman, whose squad has been fortunate to this point in the playoffs. “It’s hard enough to win a playoff game when you are at full strength. That’s another worry. I know all of the coaches are worried about that.
“It’s extra special for the teams who’ve made it this far, that’s for certain.”