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Pirates Remain Triumphant in 7th State Title

Posted on Tuesday, January 23, 2024 at 1:43 pm

SHANE SHOEMAKER – Writer

The South Pittsburg Pirates will have to make room in their trophy case once again after beating the McKenzie Rebels 14-7 in the TSSAA 1A BlueCross Bowl state championship.

The Pirates (15-0) were able to cap off a perfect season to capture their seventh state title in program history, although things were often less than perfect in Friday’s matchup.

As soon as the Pirates got off the bus in their special occasion all-orange clad uniforms to enter a misty Finley Stadium, the clouds hovering above the stadium were reminiscent of the ones the team had all week leading up to the game, even up to kickoff.

The previous week against Oliver Springs in a semifinal matchup, starting quarterback Kamden Wellington was taken out of the game after suffering a high ankle sprain injury on the opening drive. Luckily, the Pirates were able to secure a 31-6 victory. But the focus quickly turned to whether Wellington, who had accounted for over 2,500 offensive yards and nearly 50 total touchdowns during the regular season, would be ready to play in the BlueCross Bowl.

The senior quarterback was limited in practice all week leading up to the game, where he was given ice therapy treatments and was in a walking boot up until arriving at the stadium. “We were trying to get him ready to go as much as he could,” coach Wes Stone said. “We just didn’t know how much he could play. He gave us everything he had.”

After a scoreless first half, each team was looking for an answer offensively, which in the Pirates case, led them back to Wellington.

Wellington made it all the way to a few plays into the fourth quarter until he was taken out after re-injuring his ankle. But even before that, he suffered a thumb injury on his throwing hand in the third quarter where he said it felt like a pinched nerve and described it “was bending in all kinds of ways.”

“It felt like I was throwing a flat football,” Wellington said.

Already playing cautious with their quarterback by limiting his runs, the Pirates became even more restricted in their play-calling once Wellington couldn’t throw the football. But on a third-quarter drive that started on the Rebels’ 29-yard line with 2:57 remaining, he ran five times for 23 yards, including converting a pivotal fourth-and-1 before he was finally taken out.

“I just pride myself on being a tough quarterback,” Wellington said. “I told coach [Stone] after halftime, he said, ‘Can you run?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I can run. Run me as much as you can.’ They trusted me, and I got us down the field.”

Jamarion Farrior, who filled in for Wellington in last week’s semifinal matchup, would take the reins once again and would score on the very next play with a three-yard run to tie it up. Wellington finished his night going 5-for-12 with 62 yards passing, with another 42 yards rushing.

“We knew it made us one-dimensional,” Stone said. “We weren’t going to put a freshman or a sophomore in that spot.”

The Pirates received the ball to start the second half, but on their first three possessions, suffered three lost fumbles, with Farrior having two, one leading to a McKenzie score after the senior coughed it up at the South Pittsburg 25-yard line. Stone wasn’t about to take the ball out of his talented senior’s hands, though. Farrior carried the ball a total of 14 times for 78 yards in the fourth quarter and scored both Pirates touchdowns – one for the tie and the other for the lead.

“We never thought about taking it out of [Farrior’s] hands,” Stone said. “You could see them. He was wearing on them. He was running on them, gaining two yards, three yards, four yards. When you’re in there in a phone booth like that, it’s just physical, it’s just will on will and who wants it more.

“But there was no way in that last quarter that anybody else was going to get that football besides No. 8.”

Farrior finished the evening with 29 carries for 160 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but also with the games MVP award for his remarkable performance.

When asked how his teammates and coaches approached him after his two fumbles, Farrior said, “They just believed in me, really. They know what type of player I am, the type of person I am – I’m never going to quit. After those two fumbles, I got pretty hard on myself. But my coaches kept telling me they believed in me, kept giving me the ball. Opportunity after opportunity came, and I just did what I had to do for my teammates to win.”

The 7-0 deficit midway through the third quarter was the only time the Pirates had trailed all season, making it unusual circumstances for this year’s team that were usually mercy-ruling their opponents by halftime. South Pittsburg wouldn’t take their first lead until 5:31 left in the fourth in Friday’s BlueCross Bowl.

Up then 14-7 with 1:49 remaining, Stone was left with a decision to either go for it on fourth-and-3 at the Rebels 43-yard line or punt it. Stone chose to trust what he called “the best Single-A defense in Tennessee” and punt the ball.

A punt by Jacob Bivens, placed the ball at the Rebels’ 5-yard line. All McKenzie had to do then was drive the ball down the field 95 yards against a Pirates team that had averaged giving up four points a game all season long.

“We won it on defense,” Stone said. “When you give up seven points, you’re supposed to win the game on the other side. My hat’s off to coach [Stephen] Britton. Our defensive staff – they’re just phenomenal.”

The Pirates defense allowed the Rebels (13-2) just 90 yards of total offense and created three turnovers, including Cavin Gilley’s interception with just over a minute remaining to seal the game.