“There were a lot of jaws hitting the bleacher, on their side and on our side.”
Those were the words of long-time Scott High sports broadcaster Rick Keeton, after the Highlanders played South Doyle to a 14-10 halftime score.
Indeed, most people — especially those from the Knoxville market that South Doyle hails from — expected the Cherokees to make quick work of the Highlanders. It's not just a lack of respect for the Highlander program, though some of it is, but a consideration of the fact that Scott has fewer than 35 players on its roster.
Scott High, which made the move from 3A to 4A this season, was battling a South Doyle team that was one of the state's best 5A teams last year before moving down to 4A this year. Maybe the reasoning went something like this: If the Highlanders couldn't keep a Class 1A Coalfield team from earning a running clock in the second half last week, how could they compete with a Class 4A juggernaut like South Doyle?
Of course, that's not necessarily a fair comparison. Coalfield isn't “just” a Class 1A team. The Yellow Jackets will likely contend for a state championship again this season. And last week's 35-7 loss to Coalfield wasn't as bad as it seemed for Scott High, as this column opined last week. A 14-0 halftime score in Coalfield's favor could've just as easily been 10-7, or even 14-0, in Scott High's favor. You could literally see the Scott team grow up as that game progressed.
Nevertheless, South Doyle is a beast of a different sort. The Cherokees had already defeated Oak Ridge and had also knocked off private school bully Grace Christian Academy to start the season. They feature some of the best playmakers in Knoxville high school football.
But for 24 minutes of game time at Highlander Stadium, the outcome was up in the air. Scott High answered a South Doyle touchdown with one of its own on a 13-yard run by Brady Strunk, then answered another Cherokee touchdown with an impressive 42-yard field goal by Hugo Henry.
As close as the game was when the halftime horn sounded, Scott High had missed opportunities. The Highlanders had gotten as close as South Doyle's 12-yard-line on their third possession of the half before a holding penalty killed the drive and forced the long field goal attempt. And the first half ended with Scott marching again, driving inside South Doyle territory with a chance to take a lead to the locker room.
The second half was a much different story, of course. It wasn't just because South Doyle made adjustments, though that certainly played a role. And it wasn't because the Cherokees decided to wake up and play; the game was legitimately close in the first half.
Rather, the same beast that bit the Highlanders during the second half of last week's game at Coalfield played the main role, and that is a lack of depth.
Coalfield quickly turned a 14-0 first half in which the Highlanders probably outplayed them into a 35-0 lead with three touchdowns in the third quarter. And South Doyle turned a 14-10 lead into a 35-10 lead with three touchdowns in the third quarter.
That's the downfall of having a 33-man roster, especially at the Class 4A level. While other teams are platooning players, keeping fresh legs on the field, short-handed teams are having to play kids both ways.
“You've got guys having to play offense, guys having to play defense, guys having to play special teams,” Highlander coach Josh Terry said. “I think it showed up in the second half. It's not like you're lining up and running wind sprints. You're going head to head with guys that are wanting to play college football. I don't think we ever quit in our heads, but it wears on you. Fatigue is a real thing.”
Last week, we said that the Highlanders were limited by two things: A short-handed offense that resulted in a lot of players switching to new positions after some shakeups late in fall camp, and a short-handed roster overall that resulted in a severe lack of depth.
Unfortunately, the lack of depth is still real, and will be throughout this season. But the Highlander offense began to make strides. The growth was real between Week 1 and Week 2.
“There's a lot of new guys playing different things,” Terry said. “The improvement from last week to this week from an offensive standpoint was tremendous and I look forward to it growing from there.”
They say a team's greatest improvement is from Week 1 to Week 2. That's usually true. But considering just how new some of these Highlanders are to their new roles, the offensive growth should continue for Scott High in the weeks ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will continue to be some jaws hitting the bleachers as the season progresses.