BY DARREN REESE
Back in late September, West Greene head coach Joe Case sat his team down and had a little heart-to-heart talk.
The Buffaloes were coming off a disappointing 21-6 loss to District 2-AA rival Cumberland Gap, in which they turned the ball over four times, including three times in the red zone.
The defeat put West Greene at 1-4 overall at the time. Case wasn't just worried about the team's run of four straight playoff appearances being in danger, but he was also concerned about the mind set of his young roster.
"We played some pretty good football teams early on," Case said, pointing to a schedule that included Cherokee and Onieda. "But we also weren't playing like we expected to play. That made it tough against those good teams."
"But when we started the season, we were young in a lot of areas. We were starting a lot of freshmen and sophomores. We just wanted to try find a good mix and get settled in."
And that's exactly what Case's squad was able to do.
West Greene won four of its last five games - the only loss in the span was to Greeneville - to keep its postseason streak alive. Now they get their rematch.
The Buffaloes will get to see just how much they've improved over the second half of the season as they travel to Cumberland Gap Friday night for the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"It's a game we felt like we should have won," Case said of the first meeting with Gap. "You take away the turnovers, a muffed punt, the missed blocks, the penalties...all the things you can't do against a good football team."
"But it really was the turning point in our season, I feel like."
West Greene will again be in search of the elusive first TSSAA playoff win in school history.
The Buffaloes have qualified for the postseason five straight years under Case - now in his sixth season - but have been defeated in the first round each time. Their season was ended by Austin-East each of the past two seasons.
Prior to Case's arrival, West Greene had made the playoffs just one other time in school history (2002), and hadn't won more than one game in a season in four years.
"Our kids are excited for this opportunity," Case said. "And really, that's all you can ask for - an opportunity where you can win and keep going on."
West Greene has been led offensively this season by the running back tandem of sophomore Johnathan Padgett and junior Nathan Morgan, who have rushed for 735 and 697 yards, respectively.
Case hasn't asked sophomore quarterback Austin Greenlee to go out and win a whole lot of games this year, but the last time the Buffaloes played Cumberland Gap, Greenlee enjoyed one of the best statistical passing efforts the program has seen in several years. He completed 9-of-12 passes for 196 yards.
"Austin missed pretty much all of last year with a torn ACL, so really he is a first-year starter," Case pointed out. "We've tried to avoid putting a whole lot on his shoulders, but he can make plays when we need him to."
Defensively, West Greene outside linebacker Jaylynn Kesterson has turned into a game changer the second half of the season. He currently has 130 tackles on the season, and recorded 15 stops, including three tackles for a loss, in the Buffaloes win over Chuckey-Doak to end the regular season.
Cameron also plays on the offensive line.
"Jaylynn is one of the top tacklers in the country, and just makes more and more plays each week," Case said. "A lot of teams, they don't even try to run in his direction anymore."
West Greene suffered from numerous turnovers and penalties this first half of the season, but Case believes they have got those areas under control.
"We were horrible with that those first five or six ball games and that really hurt us," the coach said. "We really feel like we had a good chance to be 7-3 during the regular season."
Cumberland Gap (7-3 overall, 4-2 District 2-AA) finished runner-up in the district behind Greeneville. The Panthers earned the No. 3 seed in Quandrant I for the Class 3A state bracket. West Greene is the sixth seed.
Cumberland Gap is coming off a 47-42 win over Grainger County last week.
The Panthers have two standout runners themselves in Wesley Nance and quarterback Blake Franklin. Nance leads the team with 810 rushing yards on the season, while Franklin has totaled 760 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Franklin has also completed 125-of-209 passes for 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Cumberland Gap is averaging 30.3 points per game this year.
"They are a good football team," Case said. "They used to throw it all over the place, but I think this year they started running it more and have been really successful with it."
West Greene had a bye in the final week of the regular season. The Buffaloes ended their schedule with a big 33-27 win over Chuckey-Doak that not only sealed their playoff berth, but also gave them their fourth straight county championship.