BY DARREN REESE
December 5, 2009.
That was the date the Greeneville High School football team last lost a game in the TSSAA Class 4A playoffs. It came by one touchdown to Giles County in the state championship game.
Ten postseason wins and two state championships later, the Greene Devils are set to embark on another playoff run. Only this time around, they aren't considered the favorites - not in the state, not even in their own quadrant.
The Devils are the No. 3 seed in Quadrant I and will host sixth-seeded Gibbs Friday night at Burley Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"I hope this excites our guys and they come out ready to go from the opening kick-off," Greeneville head coach Caine Ballard said.
"It seems like for the past few years, our kids have always played their best when the playoffs start. They take it to a different level. We want to same kind of effort Friday night."
Ballard is in his fifth season as head coach of the Devils and currently boasts a 47-8 career record. Greenevile is 14-1 in the playoffs under his watch.
The Devils (7-3 overall) started the season 2-3 as they played one of the toughest non-district schedules in the state.
They lost to Science Hill (49-27) and Morristown West (31-28) to begin the campaign, and then were routed by Alcoa 42-0 in late September.
Alcoa is currently the No. 1 team in the state in Class 3A, Science Hill is No. 7 in Class 6A, and West was ranked in Class 5A for the better part of the year.
It's hard to tell how Greeneville has changed since the loss to Alcoa as they were never tested once District 2-AA play began.
The Devils ended the regular season with a five-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 250-34 during that stretch. Greeneville has yet to lose a district game since they dropped down to Class 4A prior to the 2009 season.
One of the main tasks for Ballard during the second half of the season is to make sure his kids play with the same intensity each week, no matter what team is on the opposing sideline.
His starters rarely see much more than a couple of quarters of action on Friday nights, and the clock usually runs continuously in the second half due to TSSAA's 35-point mercy rule.
"It's gotten harder the last couple of years, but I think our kids have handled it well," Ballard said of keeping his players focused during the lopsided games. "These past few games, I would have liked to have seen us come out with a little more intensity in the first quarter."
"Our defense has played well in these games, but offensively it just seems like we are starting slow. Once we do get going, though, we have typically been scoring in bunches."
Greeneville finished the regular season ranked No. 6 in the final state poll. Fulton is one spot ahead of the Devils in the tally, while Livingston Academy is one below at No. 7.
Livingston is the top seed in Quadrant I and is set to host No. 8 Grainger. Fulton is the No. 2 seed and plays Knox Carter. Should Fulton and Greeneville both win Friday night, it will set up a showdown between the two teams next week in Knoxville.
"We just have to take it one game at a time," Ballard said. "The key for us is to execute on offense, get going early. We can't make turnovers and have a bunch of penalities. This time of year, everything is magnified."
Greeneville celebrated Senior Night last Friday with a 45-14 win over visiting Claiborne. Prior to the game, the program recognized its 25 senior members.
And though the Devils may be loaded with upperclassmen this season, not all of them are playoff tested, as last year's state championship squad was also senior-heavy.
Still, Ballard feels like the kids know what to expect come Friday night, whether they saw much playing time during the 2011 postseason run or not.
"Some of these guys haven't been out there in action when the season is on the line, but we feel like we have a group that understands what this is about," the coach said.
Gibbs, meanwhile, is making its seventh straight postseason appearance, the fifth in the tenure of head coach Brad Conley.
The Eagles returned just six total starters entering the 2012 season, but they started the season with four straight wins. They followed that up with four losses in a row, a stretch in which they allowed 38 points per game to Gatlinburg-Pittman, CAK, Fulton and Carter.
Gibbs bounced back with wins over Union County and Austin-East to lock up a playoff spot.
The Eagles operate out of a Double Wing formation on offense, and are led by senior quarterback Jay Cade. He has only thrown for 201 yards (8-of-34) this season but has rushed for 1,456 on 143 carries and scored 22 times on the ground. He is complemented by running back Silas Joiner, who has totalled 988 yards.
"They rely heavily on those guys running it," Ballard noted. "But they are very well coached. They play with a lot of emotion, which is what you need this time of year."
Ballard and his coaching staff changed the driver of their offense midway through the season, moving senior Tanner Stewart to running back and placing junior Zack Finchum under center.
Stewart threw for 862 yards and ran for 1,450 last season, and started the first half of this campaign, but Ballard felt like having both him and Finchum on the field gave the Devils the best chance to be successful on offense.
The switch has paid dividends so far. Stewart has rushed for 753, while Finchum has added 463. Finchum has aslo completed 53-of-84 passes for 805 yards and nine touchdowns. They have scored 12 rushing touchdowns apiece.