BY DARREN REESE
Oh, what it must have been like riding on that West Greene bus coming back from Cumberland Gap Friday night.
West Greene had just held on for a thrilling 17-12 win over the Panthers to record its first playoff victory in school history.
The team was ushered onto the bus and sent back to Mosheim by an enthusiastic throng of fans that had made the trek over the mountain to witness history.
There was no way that the players and coaches could wipe the smiles off their faces. The congratulatory text messages and phone calls poured in all the way home.
"It was probably the best bus ride home that we've ever had after a game," senior Josh Thacker said. "The fans were going crazy at the end of the game. The players were going crazy."
"It was just a real fun, special moment all the way home."
The moment might not have happened had it not been for a forced fumble by West Greene junior Justin Pinkston with less than a minute remaining in the game.
Cumberland Gap had the ball at the Buffaloes 17-yard line when quarterback Blake Franklin found Wesley Nance open in the flat. Nance made his way down to the 6 before he was greeted with a hard lick from Pinkston.
Dylan Kirk, or "Johnny On The Spot" as head coach Joe Case calls him, was there to pounce on it for the Buffaloes. Nance slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration. West Greene had won.
"It was somewhat of a relief," Case said of winning a playoff game.
Case has led the Buffaloes to the playoffs the past five seasons. The four previous times they were defeated in the first round. The only other playoff appearance in the program's history came in 2002.
"We knew we had the opportunity this year," Case said. "And our guys went out and took advantage of the opportunity Friday night."
But the Buffaloes aren't just satisfied with making school history. They want to take it a step further.
West Greene travels to Sullivan North this Friday night for a second-round contest. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Buffaloes have won five of their last six games after beginning the season 1-4. They have grown accustomed to playing with their backs against the wall. Another regular season loss could have kept them out of the playoffs.
"I think maybe our guys play better when there is so much on the line," Case said. "They've been called the 'Cardiac Kids' and all sorts of things."
"At this point in the season, it's all about finding a way to win. Survive and advance, that's the name of the game."
Jaylynn Kesterson, one of the Buffaloes' senior leaders on defense, said the team has been playing with a sense of urgency the second half of the season.
"I think it was just about us realizing that the teams before us had built a legacy and it was up to us to keep that going," said Kesterson, who has recorded 143 tackles, including 31 for a loss, this season.
"We didn't want to be the team that put the West Greene program down. It's just a huge honor to be the team that won the first playoff game at the school."
Sullivan North has been one of the hot teams in Northeast Tennessee this year. The Raiders are 10-1 on the year, with their only defeat coming by a 23-21 margin to Elizabethton - the No. 1 seed in this playoff quad.
The Raiders defeated Unicoi County 48-12 to end the regular sseason and then had to turn around and play the same team again last week in the first round of the playoffs. The result was a 34-0 Sullivan North victory.
West Greene scrimmaged the Raiders back in the summer, over at the Tusclum indoor practice facility. Case felt like his team competed well in the workout, which saw tensions rise between the two teams.
"Things got a little heated," Case said, "but I felt like after watching our guys compete that day that they would be alright this season."
"The first part of the year didn't show that, but here the last few weeks, we've been playing the way I saw it that day back in the summer."
West Greene senior Tyler Laws says the Buffaloes are expecting a "dog fight" this Friday night.
"We have to go out there and keep it under control," he said. "We can't let our tempers get the best of us."