By Dan McWilliams
Knoxville Catholic scored 48 unanswered points to capture its second state high school football championship with a 48-8 win over Pearl-Cohn on Dec. 5 in the BlueCross Bowl Class 4A finals at Tucker Stadium on the campus of Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
The Fighting Irish, also champions in 2008, never looked back after the Firebirds scored on a 91-yard run in the first quarter.
Both KCHS and Pearl-Cohn of Nashville started the season 2-4 and reached the championship game.
Fighting Irish quarterback Chase Cunningham was the offensive MVP of the game after going 11-for-21 passing for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Teammate Austin Rowan was the defensive MVP, recording nine total tackles, including 1½ sacks and four tackles for loss overall.
Rowan said the state title feels great.
“At Catholic they’ve only done it one other time, and to be that second one, it feels fantastic,” he said. “Couldn’t be happier.”
Running the ball, which KCHS (11-4) did 44 times for 262 yards, was a key to the win, Fighting Irish head coach Steve Matthews said.
“Chase made his throws, and he had a good night. I think we established the run,” Mr. Matthews said. “We went deep a little bit early just to get them off of us. The ability to run the ball was a difference, and, of course, our defense played outstanding against a very athletic team.”
Amari Rodgers started the Knoxville Catholic comeback with an 82-yard kickoff return in the first quarter on the first play following Pearl-Cohn’s long touchdown run by Jimmyrious Parker. Jake Poczobut’s first of six extra points made it 8-7 Pearl-Cohn with 6:19 left in the first period.
“I think the turning point in the game was the kickoff return,” Mr. Matthews said. “It was kind of back and forth, and Amari took that back [for a TD]. I think, if I’m not mistaken, that’s four specialteams touchdowns in the last four games. That was huge for us, just for us to realize that, hey, we can play with these guys. Then after that, we executed really well.
“Offensively the last four games, we’ve been outstanding, and then for the defense to be able to control an offense like that, really, my hat’s off to our defense as well.”
Rodgers said of his kick return: “They got up on us, and I wanted to do something to make us go up. I took that kick back, and I think it gave us some momentum to go on that run that we did.”
Jeffery Wood, who gained 116 yards on 10 carries with two TDs, scored on a 7-yard run with 1:49 left in the first quarter to give KCHS the lead for good.
Rodgers added an interception and a receiving touchdown to his stats.
“I wanted to do anything I could to help our team get this ‘W’ today,” he said.
Chase Kuerschen was the leading receiver for KCHS, with four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Cunningham had trouble connecting with Rodgers early in the game.
“Well, I was a little bit jittery at first,” the KCHS quarterback said. “I was a little nervous, coming out in a big game, but I knew Amari would get open. He trusts me, so I could get it to him.”
Knoxville Catholic and Cunningham erupted for three touchdowns in the second quarter. Cameron Blakely caught a 7-yard pass from Cunningham, while Rodgers caught a 43-yard toss and Kuerschen a 34-yard pass. A Wood rush of 39 yards to the Firebird 25-yard line and a 14-yard pass to Kuerschen to the 10 set up Blakely’s TD shortly thereafter. Cade Mays forced a fumble that Jones Albritton recovered for KCHS, setting the stage for Rodgers’ receiving touchdown.
A 46-yard Poczobut punt pinned Pearl-Cohn at its own 3-yard line to end the half.
Wood scored on an 18-yard run to open the third-quarter scoring for KCHS, and Cunningham added a
1-yard run later in the period that invoked the mercy rule’s running clock for the rest of the game. On a fourth-and-8 play, Morgan Ernst and Joseph Healy tackled a Firebird receiver 1 yard short of a first down at the KCHS 21 to end the third quarter.
Joshua Brown rushed 15 times for 75 yards for the Fighting Irish.
Ernst also had nine tackles for KCHS, with Augustus Fortune adding seven tackles and Rodgers six. Charlie Connors recorded two tackles for loss for the Fighting Irish, and Beau Hollin added 1.5 tackles for loss.
Overcoming a 2-4 start to the season involved “a combination of things,” Mr. Matthews said, citing 2014’s fast start that ended with two losses in the last three games.
“Last year, we were 9-0, ripping through everybody, mercy rule just about every game,” he said. “We just ran out of gas, I felt like, toward the end. We made a conscious effort [this season] as a staff that we were going to take it a little bit easier on them in the fall camp. We thought it might sacrifice a few games early, and probably it did. That, along with injuries and a tough schedule — it’s just a combination of things. We didn’t start rolling until about week eight and hitting our stride until late in the season.”
“We knew when we came into this game, we felt like we were peaking at the right time as a team, forming a brotherhood and everything,” he said.
Rowan said, “As the season progressed, we got some people in the right positions. Coach Matthews always talked to us about jelling at the right time. As the season progressed, we grew as a team, and we found our identity as a football team. We got it together, and we started winning games.”
One big KCHS fan attending the game was not around for the 2008 title and enjoyed seeing his first Fighting Irish championship.
“I could not have been more proud of the team than today,” said Bishop Richard F. Stika. “Right before I arrived in Knoxville, they won their last state championship, and now I was able to witness this historic moment for Knoxville Catholic, so I’m really proud of all of the guys on the team.”
KCHS returns several players for next year’s team. When asked whether he thought the Fighting Irish could get back to the state finals, Cunningham had a succinct answer: “Yes, sir.”