And it was only fitting for the Cyclones to get there on the strength of a total team performance.
The No. 1-ranked Cyclones earned a spot in the TSSAA Class 4A football championship game with an emphatic 34-12 win over Nolensville in a semifinal contest Friday night at Citizens Bank Stadium.
Bryson Rollins connected for three touchdown passes to Parker Hughes to get the Cyclones past the semifinal round after six unsuccessful tries in the past 22 years.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Cyclones coach Shawn Witten, who had been to this stage twice as a player and four times as a coach. “It took everything we had tonight to pull out this victory. It was a great football team and they really challenged us.
“Our defense was the story tonight. It was a championship defense.”
Elizabethton became only the second TSSAA District 1 team in 43 years of a true statewide playoff to reach the title game, joining Cloudland from 2001. The Cyclones won a state title in 1938 before the TSSAA began its playoff system.
Elizabethton (14-0) will take on Springfield in the finals at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, in Cookeville. No. 9 Springfield (11-3) earned its berth with its second straight overtime victory, a 17-14 decision over No. 2 Haywood.
Elizabethton took a few body blows in the second quarter, but the defense was once again rock solid.
Standout linebacker Deuce Morton said the performance was built a long time ago.
“We knew the behind-the-scenes work would pay off in the end,” Morton said.
CLOSING THE DEAL
After stopping Nolensville’s first drive of the second half, the Cyclones embarked on a six-play scoring drive capped off by Cade Maupin’s 6-yard run.
“We came out with a different mentality in the second half,” Maupin said. “We weren’t going to let them stop us.”
Jaxton Holly had a rare missed extra point and the score was 20-12. Holly later responded with one of the best punts of the season, booming a 57-yarder that was downed at Nolensville’s 1-yard line.
The Cyclones got a stop and put the game under complete control when Rollins tossed a bubble screen to Hughes, who negotiated traffic and burst down the sideline for a 24-yard score and a 27-12 lead with eight minutes left in the game.
Elizabethton got the ball back and added the exclamation point when Rollins threw the same pass to Hughes. This time Hughes worked his way toward the middle of the field for a 20-yard score and the icing on the cake.
Elizabethton struck first, scoring late in the first quarter when Rollins threw a 7-yard fade route to Hughes. The pass was defended well, and the ball hit Hughes’ shoulder pads before he plucked it out of the air in the corner of the end zone.
The score was set up by the second of two first-quarter interceptions. This one was by Zach C. Hartley. Cade Russell had the first pick.
With eight minutes left in the second quarter and facing third and goal from the 19, Rollins hit Zach Hartley on a screen pass. Hartley got to the 4 and the ball was moved to the 2 because of a face-mask penalty. Still third down, Rollins rolled out and powered into the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
NOLENSVILLE FIGHTS BACK
Mr. Football finalist Tim Coutras went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the first quarter when the game was still scoreless. He was unable to return.
Trailing 14-0, the Knights embarked on a 10-play drive with Ryan Pistulka’s 4-yard scoring run making it 14-6. Nolensville missed the extra point with about three minutes left before halftime.
The Knights got a stop, forced a punt — which went just 20 yards — and took over at Elizabethton’s 38. Six plays later, with seven seconds left on the clock, Ryder Galardi hit Gage Skipper with an 11-yard scoring pass to make it 14-12. The 2-point conversion was no good, but Elizabethton went into the locker room with plenty of question marks.
“When we went into halftime, we felt like we were kind of down,” Witten said. “We regrouped and guys came back and bounced back. We just had to finish and keep our composure. We had to trust in each other and believe in each other. We knew it was going to be 48 minutes.”
Hughes said he was expecting Witten to be angry at halftime.
“He just said trust each other to make the plays and that’s what we did,” Hughes said.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Nolensville’s reputation as a turnover-creating defense seemed to affect Elizabethton’s aggressiveness through the air. Rollins hit on 6 of 8 passes for 93 yards. The Mr. Football semifinalist carried 17 times for 36 yards.
Maupin was tough inside the tackles, carrying 19 times for 88 yards, and Hughes finished with 78 yards receiving on five catches.
Nolensville outgained Elizabethton 209-202.
Pistulka carried 13 times for 46 yards and Galardi had 11 attempts for 39 yards. Galardi hit on 10 of 17 passes for 101 yards.
The Knights constantly hurt themselves with penalties. They had 15 for 75 yards and close to 10 of them were false starts.