One of the best seasons in program history came to an end for Tullahoma in Nashville on Friday, but the Wildcats went down swinging, locked in a defensive battle with Maplewood in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Playoffs.
In a game where the teams combined for 263 yards of offense, the Panthers took advantage of a first-quarter turnover on their way to a 6-2 victory.
After beating Tullahoma on Friday, Maplewood (12-1) extends its season and will host Greeneville (13-0) in the semifinals of the TSSAA Playoffs on Friday. Tullahoma saw its season end with a 10-3 overall record.
“It was a really gutty, gutty performance, we just had some really tough luck,” said THS Head Coach John Olive.
In Nashville on Friday, the Wildcats’ defense limited Maplewood to just 126 yards on the night. However, Tullahoma turned the ball over four times in the first two quarters, and the Panthers took advantage of one of those mistakes.
Midway through the first quarter, Tullahoma quarterback Kyler Parker fumbled and Maplewood took over at the Wildcats’ 44-yard line. Six plays later, David Southerland put up the lone touchdown of the game, rushing for a 20-yards core with 4:14 left in the first period.
Without a kicker, Maplewood went for the 2-point attempt, but that try was unsuccessful, as the snap was fumbled, giving the Panthers a 6-0 lead.
Tullahoma’s only points of the night came on the defensive side of the ball. Wildcats Ty Cox and Samari Layne both got pressure on Maplewood quarterback Bobo Hodges, and Hodges was forced to throw the ball away.
However, Hodges was ruled to still be in the pocket and was flagged for intentional grounding. Because the foul took place inside the end zone, it was ruled a safety, allowing Tullahoma cut the score to 6-2 with 41 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“This game unfolded the way we thought it would, two defenses battling like crazy,” Olive said. “I’m particularly proud of our defense, because in that first half, we gave them short field after short field after short field. Our defense kept bailing us out.”
Hodges completed just eight of his 27 pass attempts on the night for 61 yards, while being intercepted once by Tullahoma. The senior quarterback was also limited to just 15 rushing yards on 12 carries.
“We just tried to keep Bobo contained, and that’s hard to do,” Olive said. “They made a few plays against us, but they didn’t make very many. Our defense played outstanding. I don’t know how many yards they finished with, but I thought our defense played outstanding.”
Tullahoma gained 137 yards of offense on Friday night, but was unable to sustain drives. The Wildcats’ best opportunity for a touchdown came late in the third quarter, after a solid punt return by Jakobe Thomas gave his team possession at the Panthers’ 15-yard line.
A delay of game penalty backed the Wildcats up to the Maplewood 20-yard line, and THS couldn’t move the ball from there. Tullahoma elected to go for a 37-yard field goal try, but that attempt by Justus Chadwick just fell short with 1:30 remaining in the third period.
“We couldn’t move the ball. We had our chance in the third quarter with a short field and went for the field goal,” Olive said. “We could have punched it in, but their defense made plays … that’s by far the best defense that we’ve played all season.”
Part of the Wildcats’ offensive struggles came after starting quarterback Ben Fulton was injured midway through the second quarter. After rushing for an 8-yard gain, Fulton got hit running out of bounds, affecting his knee. Fulton would return in the fourth quarter for Tullahoma.
After Fulton went down with his injury, Parker, who had already come into the game to run the Wildcat formation, took over as the signal caller. Tullahoma’s offense became stagnant though and wasn’t able to move the ball.
“Ben going down affected us majorly,” Olive said. “We had wanted to throw a bunch of short passes tonight, a lot of underneath throws. Without him there, Kyler can’t see them [his receivers] there. We talked about moving Jakobe over to quarterback, but Jakobe was filling in where we were missing Kobe [Burks] and Hunter Palmer.
“It was one of those things where it was, ‘OK, this what we’ve got.’ At halftime, we tried to make some adjustments to try to patch things together and talked to our quarterbacks about what we’ve run in JV ball and what they are comfortable doing.”
After seeing his first four pass attempts fall to the ground, Fulton completed three of his next six throws. Fulton finished his night with 26 passing yards, completing three of his 10 attempts. Fulton also rushed for 29 yards on 10 carries.
Parker’s four pass attempts were incomplete, including throwing an interception. The sophomore also rushed for 29 yards on 14 carries.
“Kyler did fine,” Olive said. “He’s a sophomore and I’ll tell you, I would have been quaking if I had been a sophomore and thrown in the fire against that defense. I’m proud of him and this team. Kyler came in and gave us some hard yards. It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to get yards, we just became very limited.”
Friday’s loss for Tullahoma also closed the high school careers for 18 seniors on this year’s team. According to Olive, classes like this one don’t come around often.
“They go down as one of the most special classes here at Tullahoma,” Olive said. “We had five or six of those players who started as freshmen at the varsity level. The ones who have stayed, I think there are eight of them who stayed off that freshman team, they went through an 0-10 season at the varsity level, while they went undefeated as freshman. Then they went 0-10 as sophomores. We were probably a pretty good 5-5 team last year.
“This year, the work that they put in in the weight room, and the hard work, they were able to win 10 ballgames and come four points short of making it to the state semifinals. I think that’s pretty awesome for that class.”
While this year’s senior class made plays on the field, Olive said he was lucky enough to see their growth off the field as well.
“Some of them have gone from being outlaws to people who have helped people try to go in the right direction,” he said. “Some of them have been good guys, but have learned how to step up and exert their leadership, to help people make better decisions. The legacy that they’ve left on how to work, how to enjoy playing the various sports at the high school, it is special. We will miss them greatly next year.”