For the third straight season, the Springfield football team has advanced to the TSSAA Class 4A semifinals.
And for the third straight season, the Yellow Jackets (10-3) will meet Haywood with a spot in the 4A state championship on the line.
“I can’t put words on it,” Springfield coach Dustin Wilson said. “We’re one win away from getting a bus ride to Cookeville. It’s real, (the opportunity) is there.”
Kevontez Hudson’s touchdown run in overtime, coupled with a pass breakup by Gabe Kelly on the final play, helped Springfield take a 28-21 victory over visiting Hardin County in Friday’s 4A quarterfinal.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Springfield senior Cale Jones said. “Going through this season with these teammates, I couldn’t imagine doing this with anybody else. Having another week with my brothers is amazing.”
Defense bends, doesn’t break
Springfield had a 21-7 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter. But Hardin County clawed back with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Rivers Hunt to Eli Williams in third quarter, and Hunt tied the score at 21 on a 4-yard run with 2:44 remaining in the game.
The Tigers managed 325 total yards, but the Yellow Jackets kept their opponent out of the end zone when it mattered most.
“It’s a big deal how our defense rallies around each other,” Wilson said. “It’s almost like they want a bad situation. It’s kind of weird. You just have to believe in it. The defense was remarkable.”
In overtime, Springfield forced Hardin County into a fourth-and-14 to set up what proved to be the final play of the game. Hunt bobbled the snap, recovered the ball and heaved a prayer to Kaydin Pope, but Kelly knocked it away in the end zone to set off a wild Springfield celebration.
“We all know we have each other’s backs,” Kelly said. “I can trust the outside linebacker to do his job, and I do mine. That’s what our defense is made of – teamwork and leadership.”
The Kevontay White show returns
Springfield running back Kevontay White has experienced an up-and-down season that has been slowed by injuries. But he picked the right time to get hot.
The senior rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries against Hardin County. That included a 43-yard rushing score just two minutes into the first quarter.
“He’s been through a lot,” Wilson said. “It has been fun to see him reaping the rewards of listening to (the coaches). I’m proud of him and what he’s been able to accomplish. He has earned it all.”
White also had 168 rushing yards in a 31-7 win over Lexington on Nov. 15. He now has over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns this year.
“The drive that (White) has… I’ve never seen it before in my life,” Jones said. “It compares to (former Springfield and current Tennessee State wide receiver) Dayron (Johnson). They’re pretty evenly-matched. Kevontay has really turned it up this year. We’ve relied on him a lot.”
Hudson added 25 yards on eight attempts, but 187 of Springfield’s 225 yards came from White.
Hardin County weapons kept (mostly) quiet
The Tigers boasted a higher caliber of offensive weapons than most of Springfield’s opponents this season.
Hunt, a Mr. Football semifinalist, passed for over 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. He is receiving interest from FBS programs as a junior. Meanwhile, tight end Hudson Wolfe, rated by 247Sports as a four-star prospect, has 21 offers from schools like Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia.
Springfield was not intimidated. Hunt managed the two touchdowns and finished 11-of-23 passing for 143 yards. But the Yellow Jackets held Wolfe to just 36 yards on three catches.
“It’s cool to play kids like that because they’ll probably go on to do something (in college),” Wilson said. “We’ll be sitting on the couch thinking about playing against them. It feeds the fire a little bit. Except for the one fade pass (for a first down), there weren’t many balls that (Wolfe) caught.”
Haywood rematch is next
Springfield is eerily familiar with its next opponent. The Yellow Jackets beat Haywood 35-28 to advance to the state championship in 2017. The Tomcats returned the favor with a 49-14 blowout of Springfield last year.
The home team won each meeting. The TSSAA flips the home side of the bracket each year, so Springfield gets to host this time after making the trip to Brownsville in 2018.
“It’s a whole lot easier to walk out of your locker room than it is to worry about a three-hour bus ride,” Wilson said. “Football guys are creatures of habit.”
The Yellow Jackets will battle Haywood on Friday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. Kelly insisted that the Springfield fans make a difference during games.
“These fans really do turn the momentum around in the games,” Kelly said. “They mean the most to us. We make the plays, but if we’re down or something, they can bring us up. They shift the momentum every time.”