By Alex Norman
The Knoxville Catholic Fighting Irish had to go on the road to face Greeneville, the number two team in the state.
After the final whistle, the Irish headed back to Knox County only two wins away from a state title.
On a chilly night in Greene County on November 20th, the Irish knocked off the Green Devils 35-21 to advance to the Class 4A semifinals.
“I’m so proud of these young men,” said Catholic head coach Steve Matthews. “They could have quit a long time ago but they kept on believing in the process. It was an outstanding win tonight.”
Greeneville reached into the bag of tricks early when on 4th and 3 from their own 47 the snap went to the upback Leau-Alston Williams. He ran down to the Irish 21. That fake punt eventually turned into a Green Devils lead when freshman quarterback Cade Ballard ran it in from a yard out. Greeneville was up 7-0.
But the Fighting Irish responded. An 80-yard drive finished with a one yard touchdown run from Hunter Kountz. With 5:09 to go in the first quarter, the game was tied at 7.
After the Catholic defense forced a three and out, the Catholic offense went back to work. Mixing the run and the pass on a 12 play, 79-yard drive, again it was Kountz with a short touchdown run. Early in the 2nd quarter, Catholic had a 14-7 advantage.
Late in the first half Greeneville marched down the field. On 4th and 1 from the Catholic 5, running back Desmond Dabbs picked up the first down. On 3rd and goal from the 4 with the run game finally limited for the moment, Greeneville (11-2) threw the football for one of the few times on the night. Ballard found Cole Perkins alone in the end zone. With only 1:34 to go in the half, the game was even at 14.
But Catholic’s offense wasn’t willing to sit on the ball. It was a 3 play, 80 yard drive, highlighted by a 40-yard pass play from Chase Cunningham to Southern Cal commit Amari Rodgers which brought the Irish down to the Greeneville 18. On the next play Jeffery Wood ran it up the middle and in for the score. That touchdown drive only took 31 seconds, and it gave Catholic a 21-14 lead at intermission.
In the third quarter on 4th and 8 from the Irish 41, the Green Devils decided to go for it. Ballard dropped back to pass, but Catholic defensive end Austin Rowan sacked him at the 44, ending the Greeneville threat.
But on the next Greeneville possession Dabbs broke a tackle, made a move, and was off to the races on a 45-yard touchdown run. With 1:14 to go in the third, the game was tied at 21.
Just when it looked like Greeneville had all the momentum, the Irish turned it up a notch. Rodgers took the handoff around the left side, cut back to the middle, fought through a tackle, and reached the end zone to give Catholic a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“It was a huge game of ebbs and flows,” said Matthews. “They’d make plays, we would make some plays… we scored on 3 of 5 possessions in the first half but penalties stopped us. I think we answered every time. It’s a tribute to our young men and their resiliency.”
Just when it looked like Catholic (9-4) would score again, Kountz fumbled inside the Greenville 5. But Catholic took the ball right back when Chase Kuerschen jumped a slant route, and made an interception at the 8 yard line.
Two plays later Cunningham threw a dart to Kuerschen in the middle of the end zone, and with 7:06 to go the Catholic lead was up to 14.
“They rolled over top of Amari (Rodgers), which left Chase as the go to receiver. We send 5 guys out and saw that the middle of the field was open to find him and Cunningham made a great throw.”
Greeneville would not seriously threaten after that sequence. And now, Catholic will host Marshall County on Friday, November 27 with a trip to Cookeville on the line.
“This is great. We were there (in the semifinals) two years ago and now we get another chance,” said Matthews.
“We have the opportunity to go home. I’m especially happy for our seniors. We only play nine of them right now.
One of them just told me he feels like he took it for granted two years ago, and we are happy to be back.”