A Look at Rhea County’s Minefield 2017 Schedule
Like most fans of high school football, I’m already looking forward to next season. 2016 was a great year for our local Eagles, but the page has turned to 2017, and it is time to focus on the upcoming football season.
While spring workouts and the Lift-A-Thon are nearly two months away, the official football schedule for the 2017 season has been released, and I can guarantee you that if you are a fan of good football, this season is the season for you. Let’s breakdown what I call “Rhea County’s Star-Studded Seventeen” as they enter the newly formed Region 5A-4.
August 18: Cleveland (H)
Need I say more? Rhea County and Cleveland have been bitter rivals almost since Rhea County’s inception in the mid-1970s, giving fans great games, a heated rivalry, and mutual dislike between fans and players for the last three to four decades.
Eagle fans no doubt remember the shootout at Benny Monroe Stadium last season with the Eagles barely escaping Cleveland with a 35-28 win. Cleveland, who started the season with region and state title aspirations, was down to their 4th quarterback, Skylar Davis (who was actually a wide receiver) of the year, and had suffered many serious injuries to key players that derailed those hopes, but not their competitive spirit. Cleveland lost Davis to injury in the game against the Eagles, forcing them to play their fifth quarterback of the season.
Coach Scott Cummings is entering his 3rd season with the Blue Raiders, but will have to navigate a tough region in 6A that includes traditional rivals Ooltewah, Bradley Central, and McMinn County, as well as perennial state power Maryville and others.
Much to the liking of Eagle fans, this game will be played at Bill Horton Field in 2017, with the Eagles traveling back to Cleveland in 2018.
August 25: Blackman (H)
The Blackman Blaze are a 6A power program from Murfreesboro in the mid-state. Rhea County and Blackman have never met on the football field before, so the game at Bill Horton in Week Two will be the first meeting between the two programs.
In 2016, the Blaze (9-4) bowed out of the playoffs in the 6A quarterfinals, losing to Maryville by a score of 48-28. The Blackman Blaze are currently 19-7 during the tenure of David Watson, who will be entering his third year at Blackman in 2017.
September 1: Walker Valley (A)*
The Mustangs are Rhea County’s first game in Region 4-5A play, and it is going to be a baptism by fire. Kolten Gibson, the stud quarterback of Walker Valley’s high-octane offense from last season, returns for his senior year to terrorize the Eagles at least one more time before he graduates. The strong armed, athletic Gibson is all too familiar to the Eagle fan base. It was him and his receivers that gave Rhea County their tightest win of the entire season when they came to Evensville last year, barely falling short to their hosts by a score of 42-41 after a failed two-point conversion near the end of the game.
This season they host our Eagles in Charleston for a game that will have massive playoff implications with revenge on their minds to avenge the loss to Rhea late in 2016.
September 8: McMinn County (H)
For the second season in a row, the Eagles will host Bo Cagle and his Cherokees in Evensville. This time, however, it will not be in region play. McMinn made the jump to 6A with former region foes Cleveland and Ooltewah this season. However, it should be an interesting matchup. The Cherokee offense is highly similar to the offense Rhea County runs, so that could be both a hurt and help for the Eagles.
Rhea beat McMinn on the astroturf of Bill Horton Field to close out the regular season in 2016, and they, same as the Eagles, fell to eventual state champion Farragut in the playoffs.
September 15: Lenoir City (H)*
In what will be a rematch of the first round of the playoffs this past season, the Lenoir City Panthers will travel to Eagle Country to face Rhea County in Region 4-5A action. The Panthers had an abysmal season in 2016, but, by virtue of having the 4th best region record in 3-5A, were able to make their first round appearance, but unable to return home with a win against the Region 4-5A champions.
This season, the two meet again with playoff implications a definite factor. Having a five team region does make it easier to make the playoffs, but one team will still get left out, so each win in region play will be precious and hard fought.
September 22: Bradley Central (A)
It has been nearly five years since Rhea County played our other rival from Cleveland. This season, our Eagles will be making the trip to face the Bears, Rhea County’s 4th 6A opponent of the season on hostile turf.
While the Bears return talent on both sides of the ball, they will have a new face leading the offense in 2017. One of the best quarterbacks in the whole state for the last few seasons, UT-Chattanooga commit Cole Copeland, has been lost to graduation. Copeland was a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, tearing defenses with his legs and torching secondaries with his arm.
The Bears will miss the leadership and play making capabilities of their former signal caller, but they look to be a tough opponent for the Eagles, especially when playing in Cleveland.
September 29: Knox Catholic (A)*
Another appropriate title for this game could be the “Pemberton Bowl.” Eagle head coach Mark Pemberton formerly coached the Fighting Irish of Knox Catholic and won a state title with them in 2008.
2017 will see Coach Pemberton’s Eagles traveling to his former coaching stop in what is looking like the predicted game for first place in the region. While the previous games have to be played before this one can claim that gravity, many in and around the region are looking for our Eagles and the Irish of Catholic to be vying for region dominance and home field advantage during the playoffs once this game roles around.
Catholic is the lone private school in our region, and have been a state power in recent years in 4A, and are looking to continue that success in 5A. This game could go to the one with the tougher defense. We will see how it shakes out.
October 6: Marion County (A)
After Rhea County’s pivotal game against Knox Catholic, the Eagles travel to Jasper to face 2A Marion County. Before you ignore this team because of their significant size difference from our 5A Eagles, let me give you a rundown of the opponent.
Marion County has been to the Class 2A state title game every year since the 2014 season, losing to Trezevant in 2015 and 2016, and to Peabody in 2014. Also, the Warriors have not won fewer than 9 games in a season since 2011, posting records of 9-3 (2012), 10-3 (2013), and a record of 13-2 in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Marion County has become a perennial state title contender in the last half decade, and are expected to keep up a high level of success despite losing some key players.
Do not be fooled by their school size. They may be smaller than McMinn Central (who the Eagles played in 2015 and 2016 and defeated with relative ease), but they can stand toe to toe with just about anybody in the state. This game could be more of a challenge than the size gap might suggest.
Another interesting fact about the Warriors is that their defensive coordinator is a name most Eagle fans will remember: Brandon Harmon. Coach Harmon was a member of the Rhea County coaching staff just a season or two ago and was an integral part of laying the foundation of Rhea County’s elite weight training program. Harmon has done an excellent job leading a stingy Warrior defense that held Hixson, a school twice their size, to just three points last season in their season opener at Hixson High School.
October 13: Soddy-Daisy (H)*
The Trojans and the Eagles have a long and storied history that stretches back into the golden era of Rhea County football during the 1980s. Needless to say, the two teams are no strangers on the gridiron.
Soddy-Daisy will be breaking in some new players at key positions in 2017, but will be looking to spoil the Eagles’ last home game and region game of the regular season.
October 27: Cane Ridge (A)
To cap off the ‘star-studded seventeen’ is a trip to Antioch, Tennessee, to face the Cane Ridge Ravens. The home team posted a record of 12-1 in 2016, falling to 5A runner up Independence High in the quarterfinals by a score of 48-46.
The program is a powerhouse in 5A, and very well could have played in Cookeville for the state title last season if that quarterfinal matchup had went in their favor. Cane Ridge is extremely talented, and they run a similar offense to Rhea County, so expect a hard-fought, low-scoring affair in the regular season finale in the Nashville suburb.
The Pemberton era has witnessed the program take a meteoric rise. This year the Golden Eagles will graduate the most-winningest team in Rhea County football history with a tally of 42 wins in four years. Two out of the last three seasons ended with the Golden Eagles losing to the eventual state champs.
With many of our Eagle’s former region foes such as Ooltewah and Cleveland and elite playoff opponents such as Farragut and Independence shifting up a class, the 2017 Eagles could not only be knocking on Cookeville’s doors again, but be kicking it in with their first state title berth since 1985.