Leaders emerge for Sevier County
Zach Sauls knew just a couple runs would be enough to finish off Jefferson County two weeks ago.
So when the running back coughed up the ball, leading to a Patriot touchdown, he was “pretty mad” at himself. That’s when senior Joe Hayes took him aside.
“(He) was there, patting me on the back, trying to keep me up,” Sauls said. “... He was trying to be my friend pretty much.”
Sauls, Hayes and the Smoky Bears persevered, eventually holding on for a 42-35 win that night. It’s that kind of leadership through tough times that has the Smoky Bears at 9-1 entering the postseason. Sevier County has weathered plenty of storms in 2013, from big second-half deficits to a rash of injuries. Through it all, seniors like Hayes, quarterback Luke Manning and linebacker Logan Brett have kept the Bears chugging along, either vocally or by doing their job.
“It’s not easy,” Manning said. “You want to yell, yell at the top of your lungs at anybody and everybody. But you’ve got to control that and use it for you and your team.”
Manning said leadership starts to show now, in the playoffs. Sevier County hosts Cookeville (6-4) on Friday in the opening round of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s class 6A football playoffs. The winner advances to the round of 16 to face either Farragut (6-4) or Science Hill (8-2). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Burchfield Stadium.
After difficult wins the last two weeks against Jefferson County and South-Doyle, Sevier County coach Steve Brewer said the start of the playoffs means every win will be tough from here on out. That’s why the leadership of seniors, developed in the fire of fourth-quarter victories this season, is important.
“In tough games you’ve got to have it,” Brewer said. “You’ve got to have people step up and lead. Those guys aren’t going to wilt. They’re going to keep playing hard. I like their mindset. We’re glad to have them playing for us.”
The Bears have shined when pressed in the closing minutes of games this fall. Sevier County stuffed Morristown East twice on fourth down in the final quarter of the second game of the season, eventually winning 14-10. They had an even more remarkable finish one week later against Dobyns-Bennett.
The Bears trailed 23-7 in the second half at Kingsport. That’s when Manning led Sevier County to four straight touchdowns and a 34-30 win.
“We tell our players if we play good and they play good it’s going to be a good game,” Brewer said. “You’ve just got to go into those situations with a confidence and know it’s going to be tough and not be surprised. You have to hang in there. That’s what competition is all about. The bottom line is having been there, done that you can better hold up under that pressure.
“People react differently to pressure. I think we’ve been to the point where we’ve had some tough games. I don’t think the pressure necessarily gets to us.”
That’s nothing new to a program that has made deep playoff runs before and has a state championship to its credit. Seniors like Manning and Brett learned from the guys who helped them out when they struggled as underclassmen. Brett said he remembers heading to the locker room during that memorable playoff game with Dobyns-Bennett two years ago when the Bears rallied from 28 points down to win.
“We had some great senior leaders that told the team, even if we did lose, we weren’t going to give up,” Brett said. “We weren’t going to give up the whole game. Stuff started going our way, so we started winning. That’s how you’ve got to be. No matter how low the score is, no matter how bad you’re getting beaten, you’ve just got to go hard every play. You’ve got to get behind your team and encourage them and let them know you’re never going to quit.”