SHANE SHOEMAKER – Sports Writer
No one was talking about how gas prices were hovering just above one-dollar, listening to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” or arguing about the results of the OJ Simpson trial. But those in Jasper, TN were talking like it was 1995 after Marion County’s 42-9 win over Cascade on Friday night.
With their victory, the Warriors not only won the TSSAA Region 4-2A Championship — their first region title since 2016 — they secured a 10-0 regular season record for the first time since 1995, the same year they won the last of their four state championships. But while there was a sense of familiarity that left many reminiscing about days from a bygone era, there was also a remembrance of where these Warriors were at this time last season – and it wasn’t in the playoffs.
This time last year, Marion County had taken a 35-32 loss to then-region opponent Meigs County, with some then prepping for rebounds and three-pointers instead of more tackles and touchdowns. This year, however, they were routing the Cascade Champions, and preparing for a home playoff game.
“Man, it’s been a blessing,” head coach Tim Starkey said on going from 5-5 to now 10-0 in one season’s time. “These kids, the coaching staff, they’ve worked their tails off to get to this point. Last year, not making the playoffs, rubbed us raw. We had a young football team, and we knew if we could get them bigger, stronger, faster, and be more prepared, we had a chance to have a really good season… and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Before last season, Marion County hadn’t missed the playoffs since 2011. “It feels amazing,” RB/LB Ashton Martin, who is the only sophomore on the team to start for this year’s Marion County squad, said. “Coming from being 5-5 last year to being 10-0, it’s a great feeling.”
It was Martin who gave the Warriors their offensive spark last Friday night after they fumbled on their first drive that ended up turning into three points for Cascade, giving the Champions an early lead. The Warriors quickly responded on their ensuing possession when Martin found a lane a few plays in and ran the ball 61 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-3.
“It felt really long,” Martin said with a chuckle, speaking on his touchdown run. “You know, that’s one of the plays that we practiced, and we knew it was going to work coming into this game. And Coach Starkey trusted me with the ball, and he gave it to me, and I took it to the house.”
Martin finished the night rushing for 67 yards on four carries with one score, including a two-point conversion reception. Defensively, which is where Martin said is his strong suit, he had a sack, which was on a fourth-down stop late in the third quarter. “Defense is really my strong suit, that’s really where my heart is set,” Martin continued. “I feel like we got a really good defense, really underrated.”
The Warriors’ defense held the Champions to just 121 total yards of offense, allowing them to convert only one out of their 10 third-down attempts, with seven out of their 10 drives resulting in a punt or turnover. Outside of their first-quarter field goal, Cascade’s next and final score didn’t come until their opening drive in the second half when freshman Brady Lewis ran 60 yards to get the Champions inside the Warriors’ 20-yard line. A few plays later, Hayden Dowell scored on a five-yard run.
The Warriors’ 27 first-half points were too much to overcome by that point for the Champions. Aside from Martin’s long touchdown run in the first quarter, Sam Pickett and EJ Wilson scored on short runs in the second, with another score coming with just 26 seconds left in the half when the Warriors pulled a bit of trickery that left Tilton Pickett to hit a wide-open Luke Tipton, who then easily found the end zone to make it 27-3 at the break. Wilson would have one more score on the evening, a 54-yard run in the third quarter that had him bouncing off tacklers. Brody Leonard finished off the Warriors’ talented backfield scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth.
“Everybody is 0-0,” Starkey said. “The goal was to be 10-0, to be number one in the region – and we checked that box. So the next box is to take it a game at a time and try to end up in Chattanooga in about a month.” Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium will be the site of this year’s BlueCross Bowl state title games.
The Warriors will first host the Westmoreland Eagles (5-5) in the opening round of the 2A playoffs.
~photos courtesy of Gene Fuller and Marilyn Quarles