From the opening kick to the final seconds, Sweetwater’s first-round playoff game at Smith County was a thriller.
The Wildcats (7-4, 3-2 Region 3-3A) battled the Owls (7-4, 4-1 Region 4-3A) throughout the contest on Friday, but ultimately fell to Smith County by one point, 28-27. The loss ended Sweetwater’s season.
“We’re disappointed,” Sweetwater head coach Mike Martin said. “I hope the kids expected like we did. We expected to move on, move on to the next round … Disappointed, but I couldn’t be more proud of them.
“They continued to battle just like they’ve done all year, every game.”
Bryce Johnson returned the game’s opening kickoff back for a 70-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats an early 7-0 lead.
But the Owls scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass, then produced a short rushing score to take a 14-7 advantage by the end of the first quarter.
Drew Hicks pounded in a 2-yard rushing touchdown to respond in the second period, but the extra point was blocked, leaving the Wildcats with a one-point deficit.
Hicks crossed the goal line again and Johnson connected with Hunter Jenkins on a halfback pass for the two-point conversion during the third period. Two more Smith County touchdowns in the quarter saw the Owls regain control, 28-21.
Sweetwater quarterback Austin Long hit Jenkins on an 8-yard touchdown pass late in the game for what looked to be the tying score, but a second blocked extra point kept the Wildcats trailing by a single point.
On Sweetwater’s final drive, Long’s fourth-down pass with under a minute remaining fell incomplete, dooming the Wildcats’ chances of a last-second comeback and ending their 2019 campaign.
“Our defense holds them late when we have no timeouts left,” Martin said. “I think we get it on about the 15 or 20-yard line and we’ve got to move it down the field. That was one of the best two-minute drives I’ve ever been associated with in coaching with no timeouts, and I’m putting it on the kids, the way they executed with the sidelines.
“We got out of bounds. We killed the ball when we had to kill the ball. To get it down there and get it close was an accomplishment, but we’ve just got to learn how to finish it.”
The Wildcats also battled injuries throughout Friday’s game, with Martin and his staff forced to insert less-experienced players into key situations.
“Another thing, I do want to add this, that I’m proud of,” Martin said, “I don’t think people understand, we lose James Cannady in the first quarter to injury. He’s a senior starter. Then we lose Carter Holmes, who’s a junior starter on both sides of the football.
“We were already without Simon Blomstrom, who is one of our two-way starters and he’s a leader too. That was one of the things I was most proud of is … we had some freshmen out there at the very end of the ballgame and battling during the playoffs … some great experience.”
Sweetwater saw a huge improvement in the program’s first year under head coach Mike Martin, who also serves as the school’s assistant principal and athletic director. The Wildcats finished just 2-8 in 2018, more than doubling that win tally this season.
“These kids showed up every day for practice,” Martin said, “and not just showing up, but they showed for the most part and they practiced hard … We hope we’ve got that installed in them where we don’t have to try to continue to fight that beast of being there when you’re supposed to be there and working when you’re there to work.
“Hopefully (this season’s result) does that and hopefully they’ll want to, one, have a little confidence, and two, their goal is to move on farther than we did. (A) 7-3 regular season is pretty good, but I’d say if you ask every one of them right now, they’d be pretty disappointed that we didn’t finish that off Friday.”
Sweetwater also swept county rivals Sequoyah and Tellico Plains, defeating both teams during the regular season.
“Hopefully we can all learn from everything this year and improve the program,” Martin said. The big thing is our expectations. I think our kids’ expectations every year as a football team should be to play as hard as you can every time and you go out there and show up and things will work out.”