Hats off to the Springfield football team.
The Yellow Jackets’ incredible run through the playoffs came to an end with a 30-6 loss to Elizabethton in the Class 4A BlueCross Bowl on Saturday at Tennessee Tech.
Not many thought they would reach this stage. And it took a seven-game win streak to get there (including three straight to grab the Region 5-4A regular season title). Springfield (11-4) followed with playoff victories over Jackson South Side, Lexington, Hardin County and Haywood.
I certainly did not see this coming. After reaching the state title game in 2017 and the semifinals last season, heavy roster turnover made 2019 look like a rebuilding year.
Instead, I am starting to think deep playoffs runs can be the norm for coach Dustin Wilson and his team. They have advanced to five quarterfinals, three semifinals and two state championship games over the last five seasons.
Sustaining success is never easy. Although Springfield will return plenty of pieces in 2020, there are also factors that could impede them in the future.
Returning talent is promising
Springfield graduates nine seniors, including two starters on offense and six on defense. But things could be far worse, and the Yellow Jackets have several talented players returning.
The biggest losses include the linebacking trio of Mikie Neal, Yonel Rodriquez and Christian Trujillo and 1,000-yard rusher Kevontay White. The Yellow Jackets also lose Austin Stiltner, Nate Kendrick and Nathen Griffith from the defensive line. Do-it-all man Cale Jones also graduates.
The rest of the team will remain intact. Quarterback Kevontez Hudson will be back for his senior season, and he will be protected by five senior offensive linemen, including Ke’varis Lark, Tristan Petit, Tres Haley, Clayton Wells and De’Marion Wynn.
That should open holes for rising sophomore tailback Keontez Woodard (74 attempts, 293 yards) and whoever else receives carries. Receivers Gabe Kelly and Ze’Rel Boyd may benefit from a more-experienced Hudson behind center.
Kelly will also be asked to anchor the defensive backfield. He emerged as a big-play threat on offense (10 catches, 304 yards and 3 TDs) and defense (79 tackles, 7 INTs) this season.
Linebacker Keyshawn Robinson and defensive linemen Kamrin Garrett, Kevarius Smith and Lamarion Turner are among the other promising returning defenders.
Road games, reclassification could spell trouble
Springfield was fortunate to play four of its five playoff games at home this season, thanks to being on the home side of the bracket for the quarterfinals and semifinals. A quarterfinal home game is no guarantee next year, and no matter what, Springfield would have to travel for the semifinals.
The Yellow Jackets won home semifinal games over Haywood in 2017 and 2019. When Springfield visited Haywood in the 2018 semifinals, it lost. Having to hit the road for playoff contests will make the path to Cookeville a bit longer and more difficult in 2020.
Beyond next season, the TSSAA Board of Control is considering eliminating a class in football. An official decision will not come until next summer, but how the new classifications are determined could have an impact on the Yellow Jackets starting with the 2021 season.
Springfield had the fourth-highest population of the 47 Class 4A schools when classifications for the 2017-2021 cycle were announced in October 2016. The Yellow Jackets have clearly benefited from dropping from Class 5A to 4A after the 2014 season (they are 49-21 overall since the move).
If Springfield is lumped into a classification with larger schools, it may be forced to compete against the likes of Beech, Gallatin, Henry County, Hillsboro, Shelbyville and others in the playoffs.
Winning seasons seem like a safe bet
All things considered, I’m not betting against the Yellow Jackets, who now have six consecutive winning seasons. They are a group that simply finds ways to win. Springfield is 62-40 with a pair of state championship appearances since Wilson took over in 2012.
It’s not realistic to expect a trip to Cookeville every December. However, this is a program that has proven it can produce winning seasons and playoff appearances year in and year out. The 2020 Springfield team can probably do both of those things.
When will the Yellow Jackets recapture the glory of the 1993 state championship season? We may find out sooner rather than later.