WHITWELL, Tenn. — Mother Nature played right into the hands of the Whitwell Tigers. Relying on an unwavering running game as they’ve done all season, the Tigers took advantage of a muddy field Friday, Nov. 6 to grind out a 19-7 victory over visiting Moore County in the opening round of the TSSAA Class 1A playoffs.
For a team that relied heavily on the run game all season and rarely threw the football, Thursday’s overnight rain and Friday’s constant drizzle left Whitwell with the only option it needed: run the football.
And so they did.
Senior fullback Jake Sartin had 172 yards rushing on 23 carries, including 91 yards in the second half when the hosts scored twice to build on their 7-0 halftime lead. Sartin, who went over the 1,000 yard rushing mark for the season finished with three touchdowns. Teammate Clay McHone added 107 yards rushing on 19 totes.
At Vernon Holtzcamp Field, it marked the first playoff win for Whitwell (6-5) since 1993 and it wasn’t pretty. Mud covered the field before kickoff, a steady rain through most of the game blurred the yard lines and Moore County players, who started the contest wearing their starch white jerseys, were indistinguishable by halftime.
“It wasn’t a pretty ballgame, but it was a beautiful ballgame,” Helton said. “These young men kept their heads up when they heard negative in the community. They overcame the expectation to not win. They now have an expectation to win.”
While Sartin scored on runs of 39 yards, 11 yards and 28 yards, it was the Tigers’ ability to constantly string together first downs that kept them just out of reach. And just when it seemed as though the Raiders had Whitwell stopped, they’d allow a back to pop free for just enough yards to move the chains.
Those breakdowns eventually led to touchdowns.
“I think when we go and look back at this film, we’re gonna see that we’re just a step or two out of position on some of those plays,” said second-year Moore County head coach Jeremy Austin, who led the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time in two years.
Sartin agreed with Austin’s assessment.
“It’s really hard to keep your feet and every time you get tackled you’re sliding, but it’s very enjoyable,” Sartin said. “It was a pretty close game. They made a couple mistakes, and if they didn’t it would have been a closer game.”
Whitwell’s defense held the Raiders on fourth down twice in the first quarter. The Tigers also forced a fumble and McHone made an interception on the Raiders’ final drive, picking off freshman quarterback Stone Frost at the 17-yard line with less than a minute remaining.
After Whitwell took a 7-0 lead on its first possession, the teams traded jabs on the sloppy turn until intermission.
The third quarter was scoreless as well, but the hosts were moving the ball as the quarter came to a close. With the rain steadily picking up, the Tigers got their second touchdown of the game when Sartin broke through for an 11-yard score just 10 seconds into the fourth quarter. The PAT failed, leaving Whitwell in front 13-0.
Backed against a wall, the Raiders finally showed some life. A 52-yard touchdown run by senior Spencer Reese cut the lead to 13-7 and got Moore County back in the game with 8:10 remaining.
But the Tigers had an answer of their own. With Sartin carrying the ball seven times on the Tigers’ final drive, he raced through a gap in the MCHS defense and sloshed through the muck for a 28-yard touchdown with just 2:47 left to play.
After the game, an emotional Austin addressed his team, which then formed a line and sang the school’s alma mater to the small contingent of Moore County fans who braved the weather and stuck around to the end despite the on-and-off rain.
“Our kids are resilient. The came here, and they fought and competed,” said Austin. “It was a sloppy mess on the field, but they came out and fought. There was no doubt in my mind that our kids were gonna come out and fight, no matter what the (conditions) were.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Whitwell. They took advantage of some opportunities and they made some big plays. Life’s like that. Football’s like that.”
Austin added that like the finality of any season, seeing his seniors go would be the hardest part.
“The hardest part of coaching is that every four years you have to let your kids go,” he said. “You spend so much time with them. And you love spending so much time with them; we know life’s gonna be different when that time is up.”