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Pirates honor special people after victory

Posted on Friday, March 15, 2024 at 2:21 pm

SHANE SHOEMAKER – Writer

It had been four days since the South Pittsburg Pirates became TSSAA 1A state champions, and the trophy – a large golden football set atop two pieces of stained wood – had yet to find its place in the trophy case, along with its six other companions.

At the team field house, a group of assistant coaches sat there, in between catching glimpses of their collective accomplishment sitting upon the table, reminiscing about the season, the events of the day and the week, and making sure they, their family members, and whoever else, had their respective BlueCross Bowl state champion hats that were given to the team after they beat McKenzie in the title game.

Meanwhile, head coach Wes Stone was in his office meeting with someone, going over the next step in the championship winners’ process: designing the rings. That’s the fun part. Although it may require about as much tedious detail as putting together a state championship team, at least in Stone’s eyes that is.

“Oh, I’ll be going over this for a while. This is just the start,” Stone said. “But it’s always fun when you’re in here talking to a ring guy.”

Across the table, assistant coach David Moore said, “I don’t care if it’s pink, I just want one!” Three other assistants – Stephen Britton, Ricky Gilley and Lindsey Roberts – probably share close to the same sentiment, winning a state title for the first time as an assistant like Moore.

These won’t be just any rings; they’ll be unique to this year’s team, but even more so because they will have a century’s worth of legacy behind them. They’ll be for Team 100.

The name alone, “Team 100,” holds special meaning without additional accomplishment, but this year’s Pirates team is one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

With 99 teams before them that established what the South Pittsburg program is today – seven-time state champions, seven-time runner-ups, 750 wins, 96 playoff wins – a community is once again relishing the chance to celebrate victory, having endured seasons of loss, in more than just football games.

Coming off their 2021 state championship season, the Pirates were riding high once again, winning their first title in 11 years. Stone, who has had a family member a part of every state title run in program history, whether it was himself, his father, brother, sons, or cousins, had officially taken over the program in 2022, after sharing duties with assistant principal and athletic director Heath Grider following Chris Jones’ sudden departure. But quickly, adversity struck in ways that Stone and the South Pittsburg community couldn’t possibly imagine.

In June of 2022, four South Pittsburg students were killed in a car crash, including 16-year-old Jailyn Pellam, who would have been a senior this year and was honored by friend and wide receiver RaCash Kelly in wearing his No. 11. Two months later, 1999 state champion, Marion County Detective Matt Blansett, died in a helicopter crash.

The Pirates finished that season 9-3 and were unexpectedly bounced out in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014, beaten by Gordonsville 14-7. “It really put a damper on us,” Stone said concerning the tragic events, who lost a player in Pellam and a close friend in Blansett. “Until somebody goes through it, there’s not a manual that tells you how to maneuver through that.”

With no other options but to push through as a community and a football team, Stone set out to make the 2023 Pirates, otherwise known as Team 100, one of getting back to the roots of what made the program successful, while hoping to give the town a sense of relief.

“We spent spring practice just lining up and knocking each other’s heads off and understanding how to become physical again and running the football,” Stone said. “There were so many times in the middle of practice where I’d just blow the whistle in the middle of a drill, and we’d get right there and do Oklahoma’s. We wanted to create a sense of toughness and a sense of physicality that I didn’t feel like we had in 2022.”

A tough, physical brand of football is what the Pirates program was originally built on with players like Dr. Charles “Rusty” Adcock, who was part of the 1963 team that won the Civitan Bowl, the precursor to the TSSAA state championship and was the first former player in South Pittsburg history to have his jersey retired. Or like Jimmy Wigfall, the running back by which all other Pirate runners are compared to, who set multiple school records and was part of the first Pirates’ state championship back in 1969. Or like Eddie Moore, who would play for the Tennessee Volunteers and then later drafted in 2003 to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the second round.

As things were being prepared for a promising season on the field, there would be more tragedy off of it before the 2023 season could even get underway, however. In April, Andy Grider, who was the father of senior OL Cameron Grider, passed away while gardening in his yard. Then, in the early hours of the morning of Aug. 18, just before the first game of the season against Oliver Springs, assistant coach Moore’s wife, Natalie, passed away after her battle with cancer. “In 20 years, a coach never lost their spouse or we lost a kid currently playing. That didn’t happen,” Stone said. “I don’t have any experience in – how do we deal with this?”

The Pirates celebrated their first of 15 victories to go undefeated that night – a feat shared by only two other teams in South Pittsburg history, those of 1999 and 2007 – but they also honored Natalie, affectionately known as “Nat,” with her name painted on the field. “In all the years, I’ve never known anything else to be painted on that field besides that Pirate P. I couldn’t believe it,” Moore said.

Stone had Moore’s wife’s name painted directly under the Pirates’ P logo at the 50-yard line. “Coach Moore is just a really special guy,” Stone said. “It’s just something I wanted to do to honor her.”

Unfortunately, the Pirates’ community would lose a legend the following week in Bob Sherrill, otherwise known as “The Voice of South Pittsburg.” Sherrill was the only person who had been a part of all the previous six Pirates’ state championships, with this season’s being his first he missed. “You didn’t think of South Pittsburg football without thinking of his voice,” Sean Dunwoody said, who has been calling Pirates football games on WEPG radio since 2001 and was a 1991 graduate.

“A lot of people will come up to me and say, ‘You’re the voice of Pirate football.’ And I always tell them, no, that is Bob Sherrill and will always be Bob Sherrill,” Dunwoody said.

Winning a fifth region title, going 14-0, the Pirates had seemingly put a community on their backs just before being sent off to Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium for the TSSAA 1A BlueCross Bowl state championship. They had helped push a community through nearly two seasons worth of tragic events. Granted, winning football games could never replace the loss of lives, but it at the very least brought a town – which is tight-knit to begin with – together in celebration and union.

But just before the 2023 Pirates were to take off for the biggest game of their lives, another life was lost. Just a mere miles down from Beene Stadium, where the team was set to take off for the state title game, 17-year-old Bentley Buchanan died in a car accident. Although she was a student of Marion County High School, she and her family were a part of and loved by the South Pittsburg community. “It’s someone that lives in your community, goes to a school close to us,” Stone said. “It still affects you because these kids in this locker room, these boys, it affects them. I love winning football games. I love coaching kids. But when those things happen, it really puts things in perspective.”

A rainy, dreary first day of December was eerily reminiscent of the thoughts and feelings of those either on the field or in the stands on that Friday afternoon after hearing of Buchanan’s passin. And likewise, the Pirates team itself was fighting its own adversity on the field. They entered the game with their starting quarterback, Kamden Wellington, questionable after suffering a high ankle sprain the week before in the semifinals against Oliver Springs. But as the game progressed, the Pirates trailed for the first time all season, going down 7-0 to McKenzie midway through the third quarter, after accounting for three lost fumbles all in the same quarter, when they had only lost three all year.

Wellington would later be taken out of the game not long after the start of the fourth quarter, re-injuring his ankle, but even before that injuring his thumb on his throwing hand in the third. “It seemed like everything in that game was going against us,” Stone said.

But thanks to two Jamarion Farrior fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns – one for the tie, the other for the lead – and a defense that only allowed McKenzie 90 yards worth of total offense, the Pirates claimed a seventh title in only a way that could have honored the 99 teams before them, not to mention offer a bit of healing and relief to a community in the process.

“Someone said you had the 100 year history, all 100 teams, just kind of wrapped up in that final 12 minutes,” Dunwoody said. “You had to go back to power football, had to go back to the basics, had to go back to line play.

“But in all that, you know, just the people who meant so much to the program – that kind of made this title special for a lot of people. Going into the game and after the game, it had this weird feel of, it was happiness, it was relief, and it was just… it was like there was something else in the background… like it was bittersweet.”

The BlueCross Bowl unfolded in a manner reminiscent of how the town of South Pittsburg has navigated the past two years – with resilience and fortitude. This alignment is fitting, considering the deep and intricate connection between the Pirates football team and the community itself.

“I just want everybody to remember Team 100 for what they did,” Stone said. “It’s really neat that the 100th team in school history was able to go 15-0 and have a magical season. It’s really hard to win a state championship, but it’s a lot harder to go undefeated while doing it. Hopefully everybody will appreciate these kids and will always remember they were Team 100 and remember them for what they did defensively, offensively, and for the type of kids they were.”

When all the gold and diamonds in the eventual state championship rings are made, they will symbolically reflect a community that refused to succumb to adversity, honoring those they lost and standing resilient as they etched Team 100 into the storied legacy of South Pittsburg football.

The Marion Tribune – December 21, 2023