Raise your hand if you thought this Springfield football team would end up in Cookeville.
OK, I’m seeing some hands from Springfield loyalists. Parents, season-ticket holders, former players – you know who you are. Rose-colored glasses can be blinding.
My hand would not have been raised.
I entered this season as an outsider, without any bias toward or any institutional knowledge of the Springfield program. In fact, I had never spent any time in Robertson County until I was hired in May.
My first experience seeing Springfield live came during a 35-0 loss to East Nashville in a preseason scrimmage on Aug. 9. The Yellow Jackets fumbled on three of their first drives. Players weren’t lining up correctly. It was ugly.
Springfield looked like it was heading for a rebuilding year after two straight state semifinal trips. A 37-7 loss to Wilson Central in Week 1 confirmed that belief.
But boy was I wrong.
The Yellow Jackets have reeled off seven straight wins, including four playoff victories, to advance to the 4A state title game for the second time in three years.
“This thing goes back so many generations,” Springfield coach Dustin Wilson said. “There’s one thing about Springfield kids: they’re freaking tough.”
In fairness, some of the players did not even see this coming. Luis Diaz-Jijon, who kicked the game-winning field goal to beat Haywood 17-14 in the semifinals, said he did not think it was possible when he joined the team in the summer. Quarterback Kevontez Hudson was also unsure of the season’s direction after the rough start.
“I’m very excited,” Hudson said. “It’s leaving me speechless. After the first game, I was kind of nervous. But as we went through the season, I was like, ‘Yeah, we got this.’”
What’s been the key?
The players are trusting each other and performing as a cohesive unit. It’s not a squad chock-full of prized recruits (no one has a college offer at last count). Rather, it’s a bunch of solid high school players that are well-coached, disciplined and know how to win tight games.
“It’s all built around trust,” junior defensive back Gabe Kelly said. “I trust these teammates. We got way closer (as the season went on), just hanging out with each other. We keep each other’s grades up. It’s a family.”
It certainly helps that this group played with and behind the 2017 and 2018 seniors, who combined to go 22-7 over the last two seasons. Hudson took over behind center and has thrown for 730 yards, rushed for 1,141 yards and has scored 26 total touchdowns. Senior tailback Kevontay White has rushed for 1,110 yards and 15 touchdowns thanks to a late-season surge.
The defense has also been stellar. Led by coordinator Drew Wilson, Dustin’s younger brother, the Yellow Jackets have limited their opponents to an average of 12 points over the last seven games.
Senior linebacker Mikie Neal leads the way with 137 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. Kamrin Garrett carries a team-high 16 tackles for loss. Kelly has 76 tackles and seven interceptions. Cale Jones (88 tackles, three INTs), Yonel Rodriquez (76 tackles, 10 tackles for loss), Austin Stiltner (53 tackles, eight tackles for loss) and a host of others round out the stingy defense.
“Our defense has been keeping it together,” Neal said. “We trust each other. And we trust each other to make the plays. That’s what happens. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Let’s go back to coaching for a moment. Hats off to Dustin Wilson and his crew. It’s not easy to replace 3,700 yards of total offense and 47 touchdowns, which is what the Yellow Jackets lost when quarterback Bryan Hayes, running back Keith Jones and wide receiver Dayron Johnson graduated last year.
It’s also not easy to sustain as much success as Wilson has at Springfield. The Yellow Jackets have advanced to five straight state quarterfinals, three straight state semifinals and now have a second crack at a state championship against Elizabethton on Saturday, Dec. 7 at Tennessee Tech.
“We expect to be here,” Wilson said. “That is every coach’s goal. We wanted to be in the playoffs. I got the 1993 state championship trophy out so (the players) could see it. They knew what was in front of them.”
That magical 1993 season brought Springfield’s only state football title. This was not supposed to be the year the Yellow Jackets would have another chance for glory.
Then again, with all the recent success, it should not come as much of a surprise. I know that now.
Why not Springfield?
“We can take anybody,” Neal said. “I believe that.”