Blue Devils trying to get over the hump
By Craig Harris for The News Examiner
The Blue Devils are in the quarterfinals for the 17thtime in Porter’s 28-year tenure, playing their Class 4A quarterfinal at top-seeded Pearl-Cohn on Friday night.
“It’s fun,” White House junior linebacker James Whitby said. “I love it. I love making it to the quarterfinals, but we want to go further. We want to take the next step. Pearl-Cohn is in the way. We have to do what it takes to get to that next step.”
The Blue Devils have ended their season with quarterfinal losses for the last four seasons.
The closest of those contests was played two years ago, a 27-23 loss to visiting Liberty Tech Magnet in which the outcome was determined by a 16-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining.
“In my opinion, I figured that my sophomore year, we should have won that game,” White House senior wide receiver/defensive back Josh Mullins said. “It tore up some of the seniors. We were up (17-6) at halftime. We just got too big of a head I guess. They came back.
“It has happened to us this year … but we’ve learned from that.”
Porter added, “Losing to Liberty two years ago was hard, losing with 50 seconds left.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far some of those quarterfinal contests that stand out in his mind.
“The one in 1997 against Brainerd (a 16-0 victory on the road), we played them in the mud,” Porter said. “It had rained all week. The field was just terrible. They were a big-play football team. To win 16-0 that night was huge.”
A series of quarterfinals from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s stand out.
“In 1998, (quarterback Josh) Lanius got hurt the previous week (in a 35-21 win over Howard),” Porter said. “He separated his shoulder against Chattanooga Howard. We said all along he was going to play. He did play. He punted. We couldn’t throw. Our tailback Brian Jones ran 45 times that night. He (Lanius) came back and played the next week in the semifinals (in a 10-3 loss to visiting Kingston).
“In 2000, we lost to (eventual state champion) Portland, 19-10. That was a tough loss. That was the state championship game in our opinion. The following year, 2001, was our first year in 4A. We played Hillsboro (falling by a 34-10 score). That was a big step for our program to get to that point in our first year in 4A.”
However, it’s not just the wins that he recalls.
“Our first one, we lost at Trezevant (when Porter was an assistant coach in 1986, a 28-7 loss),” Porter – whose has led the program to a 44-25 record in playoff games – said. “They had X-man (running back Xavier Crawford). We led 7-6.
“We lost to Kingsbury at the fairgrounds (a 36-12 loss in Memphis in 1996). I think that set the stage for that next year. We got physically dominated and intimidated. I think our kids made their mind up in the offseason that if they ever got in that situation again, they were not going to let that happen. When we got to the Clinic Bowl (in 1997), they were not intimidated. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. Sometimes, they are stepping stones. In order for them to be stepping stones, you have to learn from it.”
Porter is hoping that the recent futility will serve as stepping stones.
“You have to play really well,” Porter said. “It’s hard to advance when you don’t play well. In order to play well, you have to practice well. The only reason we are still playing right now is that the last three weeks, we have really practiced well. The kids have really zeroed in and paid attention and have executed as far as what we’ve asked them to do. You have to practice well every day.”
Whitby added, “It’s a totally different atmosphere. Practices are better, more fun. There’s more excitement. We are glad to be here. We want to stay.”
Much of those positive feelings can be attributed to the fact that team is probably as healthy as it has been since the season opener, with Mullins and Whitby being among the injured players who have returned in recent weeks. That list also includes sophomore tailback Ronald Honeycutt, senior offensive tackle Drezmond English and senior offensive guard Tyler Gardner (who returned to action in last Friday’s 39-21 victory over visiting Giles County).
“Since we have everybody back, I feel like nobody is going to be able to stop us as long as we play White House football,” Mullins said.
Whitby added, “It feels good to be healthy. Teddy (Gardner) is finally back out there. Having Teddy back out there, it puts the icing on the cake. We’re healthy. We’re ready to go.”
The Firebirds (10-2) are averaging more than 48 points per game, having scored 55 points or more six times (including in last Friday’s 63-7 victory over visiting Spring Hill).
“On film, we can tell they are very athletic,” Whitby said. “We don’t have a guy who can catch up to them. We are going to play really hard and play with our hearts. We’re going to have to give 110 percent every play.”
Mullins added, “They’re fast. You know their offense is going to make some big plays. We just have to make the same plays when we get on offense.”
Firebird senior tailback Keshawn Vaughn has rushed for 2,340 yards and 39 touchdowns, including 162 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries last Friday. The Class AA Mr. Football Back of the Year finalist has gained 100 yards in every game this season and eclipsed the 200-yard mark six times (including one 300-yard showing).
Pearl-Cohn junior quarterback Jimmy Ferrell directs the spread offense and has passed for 1,900 yards and 27 touchdowns, having completed 68 percent of his passes. Last Friday, he connected on 9 of 10 pass attempts for 211 yards and three touchdowns.
Firebird junior wide receiver Rontavious Groves caught five passes for 132 yards and a touchdown last week. Of his 36 receptions this season, 15 have resulted in touchdowns, and he is averaging 24.1 yards per reception.
“He has over 2,000 yards this year,” Porter said of Vaughn. “He’s an explosive runner. He’s 5-foot-11, 210 pounds. Vaughn, there’s no doubt, he’s a great player. He doesn’t have to have great blocking. He’s a back to where you just have occupy people, and the offensive line does a good job.
“No. 5 (Groves), he’s the fastest person we’ve seen all year. There’s nobody even close to him, and Ferrell has poise. He can throw it a mile, and he can run like a deer. They’re 10-2 for a reason. They’ve lost to MBA (Montgomery Bell Academy by a 49-40 score on Sept. 12) in a shootout and got beat by East Nashville (by a 38-36 score on Oct. 17) on the last play of the game.”
Pearl-Cohn employs a 4-3 front defensively, led by junior middle linebacker Theo Cortner and senior linebacker Koreyon Jordan. The Firebirds are allowing 20 points per game.
“They have a history of great linebackers,” Porter said. “Tony (Brunetti, the Firebird head coach) does a great job down there.
“I think everybody expected them to be at this point. This is no surprise to anybody.”
It may be a little more surprising that the fourth-seeded Blue Devils – who finished third in District 9-AA and concluded the regular season with a 6-4 record – are still in the 4A mix.
“We’ve told them all year – even when we weren’t playing good – that we really felt like there was a good football team in the locker room,” Porter said. “I think we demonstrated that in weeks 1-4. Then, we went through our struggles. There was still a good football team there, but it was up to the kids. The one thing I can say about this group … I don’t think they don’t want to disappoint their coaches. They take things personally. We’ve had to be more demanding on this bunch to get them to focus on details, and for the last four weeks, they have responded.
“Sometimes, it’s best to focus on yourself. I think that’s what’s happened the last four weeks. It’s a great win the other night (against Giles County), but at the same time, we made a lot of mistakes. It’s things we have to get straight this week. We can’t afford that. We’re not where we can be yet. That’s a good thing. We can still get better.”
Whitby added, “It all starts at home. We need to practice better. We need to run harder. We need to show up with excitement. We need to be intense. The coaches have a great game plan. We’re ready.”
Porter has watched as the bond has grown closer amongst his players.
“I think they enjoy being together,” Porter said. “I think that’s a great motivating factor. It’s very visible … they really pull for each other. (Junior wide receiver) Gavin Herrell had a big catch and recovered two onside kicks the other night. Those kids know that.
“After we lost in week 8 (a 14-7 loss to Westmoreland), the thing we said was, ‘tough times don’t last, but tough people do.’ For whatever reason, we’ve been able to pick it up a little bit since then. It helps having people back. A lot of it starts with your mentality. Right now, we have a positive vibe going around. Winning a couple of games helps that. We should be fresh right now. Whenever we get to the playoffs, we eliminate weights, and we eliminate sprints. We try to keep them fresh and make them think they’re fresh. We better be real fresh this week.”
The Blue Devils are 9-11 in quarterfinal games, 6-10 under Porter. However, the White House program is 1-7 in road games in the quarterfinal round, with the lone victory coming at Brainerd in 1997.
The Blue Devil players are looking forward to the challenge.
“The key is just to have more energy,” Mullins said. “We know Pearl is going to have more energy. To get past the quarters, we have to have energy and play as a team.”
The winner faces the winner of the quarterfinal game between No. 2 seed Trezevant (11-1) and top-seeded and unbeaten Crockett County in next Friday’s semifinal round.
Sports reporter Craig Harris can be contacted at 575-7138.
White House quarterfinal history
2013 vs. Giles County 34-10 loss
2012 vs. Liberty Tech Magnet 27-23 loss
2011 at Maplewood 31-0 loss
2010 at Lexington 28-6 loss
2008 vs. Station Camp 35-12 win
2007 vs. Pearl-Cohn 14-7 loss
2005 at Notre Dame 14-13 loss
2004 vs. Hillwood 56-28 win
2001 vs. Hillsboro 34-10 loss
2000 at Portland 19-0 loss
1998 vs. Portland 21-14 win
1997 at Brainerd 16-0 win
1996 at Kingsbury 36-12 loss
1994 at Springfield 26-8 loss
1993 vs. Marshall County 14-12 win
1990 vs. Westwood 18-14 win
1986 at Trezevant 28-7 loss
1975 vs. Moore County 14-7 win
1973 vs. College Grove 7-0 win (neutral site)
1972 vs. Cornersville 29-8 win
Overall record in the quarterfinal round 9-11
Home quarterfinal record 7-4
Quarterfinal record on the road 1-7
Quarterfinal record at neutral site 1-0
Quarterfinal record under Jeff Porter 6-10