By Bill Brewer
Photography by Dr. Kelly Kearse
Cookeville – Knoxville Catholic High School won its second state football championship in three years Nov. 30, 2017, with a 45-28 victory over Beech High School at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.
In addition to winning the championship in Division I, Class 5A, KCHS pulled off another remarkable feat at the same time.
The school has won three state championships in three different classifications since 2008. Besides the 2017 title, KCHS won the Division I, Class 4A championship in 2015 and the Division I, Class 3A title in 2008.
The victory over Beech (14-1) marked the second KCHS state championship for head coach Steve Matthews, who said he was excited for his players, assistant coaches, and the KCHS community.
“It’s a great school. It’s a great football program. It’s really one big family. We’re just so happy we were able to come out on top,” he said. “I’m just really happy for our team. They’ve worked really hard this year. I’m excited for their future. They can know they’re state champions for the rest of their life.”
Before the game, Coach Matthews said the key to winning a state title was to get out to a fast start against Beech, and that’s exactly what the Fighting Irish did.
After Beech won the opening coin toss and elected to defer possession of the football until the beginning of the second half, KCHS took the opening kickoff and promptly moved downfield for a score. Fighting Irish receiver Dashon Bussell’s 16-yard reception from senior quarterback Jack Sompayrac midway through the first quarter set the tone.
The Irish would score three more times in the first two quarters to lead 24-14 at halftime.
Beech then received the second-half kickoff and went on the offensive, narrowing the score to 24-21 midway through the third quarter. Quarterback Sompayrac responded with a nine-yard touchdown run with four minutes to play in the quarter.
KCHS would score two more times in the second half, one on a “scoop-and-score” when senior defensive tackle Larry Liverman forced a Beech fumble and sophomore defensive end Stiles Moore returned it for a touchdown. Then Sompayrac’s second scoring run of the game with 8:38 remaining in the fourth quarter capped off the Fighting Irish scoring explosion, which culminated in 397 yards of offense.
Beech would score once more but was not able to overcome the smothering KCHS defense, which limited the Buccaneers’ high-octane, run-based offense to 325 yards.
With his four-touchdown performance, two passing and two running, Sompayrac was named the title game’s most valuable offensive player. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 162 yards and the two TDs. And he rushed for 50 yards and two TDs on 11 carries.
With nine unassisted tackles and the forced fumble, Liverman was named the game’s most valuable defensive player.
Other standouts for Catholic were senior tackle and Class 5A Mr. Football Cade Mays, who is rated the best high school football player in the state; senior receivers Bussell, who had two touchdown receptions, and Cameron Blakely, who had four receptions for 73 yards; senior running back Joshua Brown, who had 14 carries for 99 yards; senior running back Joe Fluker, who had 81 yards on eight carries; senior running back and linebacker Jack Mahoney; senior receiver and kick returner D.J. Mitchell; senior kicker Ian Sauter; and sophomore placekicker Paxton Robertson, who kicked a 23-yard field goal in the first quarter and also kicked six extra points.
Mays wasn’t surprised the Fighting Irish outmatched previously undefeated Beech to win the state championship, and he’s aware not everyone shared his confidence.
“We’ve heard every single week that Catholic won’t score on this team or that team. … We put up 45 in the state championship. We’ve scored too many points in the playoffs. For the next (KCHS) team, they’re going to keep on saying that about you all, you’re not going to be able to score. Just keep doing what Catholic does. Just keep scoring,” he said.
Coach Matthews praised Mays and Sompayrac for their 2017 performances, pointing out that Sompayrac spent three years waiting for his turn to lead the offense.
Like Mays, Sompayrac said he anticipated a successful senior season, even if others weren’t convinced.
“I had faith. We knew going into the season that a lot of people were overlooking us and didn’t think we would be as strong going into (Class) 5A, but we really stuck together and had it in our minds from day one that this is where we were going to be and it turns out that we are.”
Sompayrac, who also is a standout basketball player for the Fighting Irish, acknowledged that his senior-year performance has attracted attention from college football programs, but he didn’t say which ones. The following night after winning the state championship in football, Sompayrac was on the basketball court, playing against Christian Academy of Knoxville in a rivalry game.
He said he’s keeping an open mind when it comes to plans for college.
“I’m just going to keep my options open. Whatever God’s plan for me is, I trust in Him, and He’s going to take me on the right path.”
He believes he may have caught some colleges off guard with his senior-year exploits after being a backup quarterback for three years.
He said although his teammates realized the magnitude of the championship game, they tried to treat it as just another contest to prepare for, albeit on a short week. After defeating Knoxville Central High School in the semifinal game just five nights before, the football coaches and players didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the biggest game of the year.
“Inside, we all knew what a big game it was. But we really were just trying to approach it like another week, watching film and practicing the same way we always have. We just wanted to come out and do what we do and not worry too much about what the other team is doing. We’re confident in what we can do. If we execute, then no one can stop us,” Sompayrac said.
He summed up the victory in a way his teammates and coaches would agree with.
“It was a great team victory and a great way to go out,” he noted.
Coach Matthews believes the future is bright for the players, who finished the season with a 12-3 record, and for the football program.
“This really is a special place. We have a lot of really good players. We only have 12 seniors on the team, but all of them are going to be missed. Most of them are going on to play college football. It’s just a good place to be,” Coach Matthews said. “We have things going football-wise, and academically this place is second to none. It’s just a good camaraderie, a good group, and it’s a great community.”