Springfield kicker Luis Diaz Jijon, a soccer player by trade, had never played football before this season.
“Kicking is natural to me (with) both legs,” Jijon said. “I told coach (Dustin) Wilson I wanted to be a kicker, and he gave me a chance.”
Jijon’s lack of experience did not show when he calmly stepped up for a 24-yard field goal attempt during overtime of Friday’s state semifinal against Haywood.
Jijon nailed the kick right down the middle, giving the Yellow Jackets a 17-14 victory and sending them back to the TSSAA Class 4A title game for the second time in three seasons.
“I told (Jijon) on the sideline to not be nervous,” Springfield defensive back Gabe Kelly said. “He said, ‘I’m not nervous.’ I was like, ‘There’s no way you’re not nervous.’ He’s an ice-cold kicker.”
Springfield (11-3) will play Elizabethton (14-0) for the state championship on Saturday, Dec. 7 at Tennessee Tech.
“It’s magical, we’re going to Cookeville,” Wilson said. “It will be fun to prepare another week and go pursue that gold ball, the ultimate dream of a high school kid.”
For the second straight week, Springfield needed overtime to finish off its opponent. The Yellow Jackets beat Hardin County 28-21 in overtime in the quarterfinals on Nov. 22.
Haywood received the ball first in the extra period, but Springfield’s defense held. Reid Russell attempted a 27-yard field goal and his kick deflected off the upright. Russell also missed a 30-yard attempt at the end of regulation and a 33-yard try in the first half.
Springfield then ran a few plays to set up Jijon’s field goal. Cale Jones delivered the snap, Austyn Day provided the hold and the first-year kicker booted the game-winner, setting off an emotional celebration for the Yellow Jackets.
“He’s a good kid and had good grades and wanted to play football,” Wilson said of Jijon. “Now he’s part of Springfield football history. That’s pretty cool.”
The loss was Haywood’s first since dropping a 42-7 contest at Olive Branch (Miss). on Sept. 6. Springfield extended its win streak to seven.
“I can’t believe it,” Springfield senior linebacker Mikie Neal said. “Nobody believed in us at the start of the year but us. It’s a dream come true. It doesn’t feel real.”
Hudson, White provide the offense
Springfield quarterback Kevontez Hudson and running back Kevontay White have been important pieces on offense during the Yellow Jackets’ playoff run.
That trend continued against Haywood. Hudson rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. White added 43 yards and one score on 19 carries. Both players have rushed for over 1,000 yards this season.
White’s touchdown came on a 1-yard run in the first quarter. Hudson provided a highlight-reel moment in the second quarter, when he brushed off a Haywood defender in the backfield and weaved his way to an 81-yard touchdown run to give Springfield a 14-7 lead.
Miscues cost Haywood
Haywood was its own worst enemy at times. The Tomcats committed 10 penalties, failed to turn red zone trips into points and missed three field goals.
Haywood also lost two fumbles, the first of which Springfield used to set up White’s touchdown.
QB Andrew Stanley hit Markeston Douglas for a 29-yard score in the first quarter, and he later found Marquis Mays for a 10-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But after piecing together an 80-yard drive in the final minutes of regulation, Stanley and the Tomcats were stopped by Springfield, leading to the second of Russell’s three ill-fated field goal attempts.
“They’re a physical team, a tough team,” Neal said. “Every down, you’re going to get hit. It was a battle, a fist fight.”
Of course, the Springfield defense also played a role. Neal finished with 11 tackles and broke up a pass on third down in overtime. Junior defensive back Gabe Kelly had 11 tackles, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Keyshawn Robinson chipped in 12 tackles.
Back to Cookeville
Springfield is back in the state title game for the third time in school history. The first trip produced the program’s only state championship in a 26-6 win over McMinn Central at Vanderbilt Stadium in 1993. The second trip ended with a 54-13 loss to Greeneville in 2017.
The Yellow Jackets will battle the undefeated Fighting Cyclones Saturday at 3 p.m. at Tucker Stadium in Cookeville. Elizabethton made one state title appearance in 1938 and beat Jackson 26-14.
But Elizabethton, which has beaten its 14 opponents by an average margin of 26 points, will likely enter as the favorite against Springfield.
“If we’re the underdog, the speeches just get more passionate,” Wilson said. “You can’t hide stuff from (the players). They read. I hope that’s the only game (the media) talks about all week long. We’ll just keep on doing what we do.”