McKenzie’s ascension to state football champions had been a long time in the making.
And on one enchanted afternoon in the valley of Lookout Mountain, the Rebels reigned supreme.
McKenzie completed a 15-0 season and won the TSSAA Class A state football championship over Clay County 34-14. This was McKenzie’s third visit to the final round. The Rebels suffered a 52-20 loss to South Pittsburg in 2007 and again to the same Pirate team in 2021, 24-21.
For McKenzie coach Wade Comer, it was an exercise in patience, but the two-decade plan finally came to fruition.
“It truly hasn’t sunk in yet. The further we get out from it, we’ll realize what’s taken place. It’s a sense of relief,” said Comer, who won his first crown after three attempts. “Anything less than winning was going to be a major disappointment. To finally get it accomplished, it was a relief.
McKenzie quarterback Jackson Cassidy was named Class A Blue Cross Bowl MVP for his efforts on both sides of the ball. Cassidy was 7-14 for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 45 yards and had nine total tackles.
“Cassidy played an outstanding game. He was our bell cow for sure,” said the coach of his MVP.
The Rebels kept the Bulldogs at arm’s length for much of the game, but there was a sense of impending urgency that Clay County could jump back into the game at any time. Still, the Rebels were able to manage the game and stay at a safe distance from the Bulldogs.
Comer said his team was focused on this task when they got back in the weight room in January.
“We were focused and set from Day One and it started last January. They were dialed in to correct the wrong there (last year),” Comer said. “I was glad for them to get it done. We didn’t have a week where we didn’t show up ready to play. We played every week, it didn’t matter who we played, we were ready.
The Rebels did what they have done all year long: break explosive plays, which, eventually, broke the Bulldogs’ will. Just 16 seconds into the game, McKenzie senior running back Marquez Taylor bolted 55 yards for a touchdown. Zach Aird booted the first of his four PATs and the Rebels secured a quick 7-0 lead.
When the Rebels got the ball back, it didn’t take long for them to ring the bell. Five plays into the next drive, Cassidy hooked up with Zay Webber for a 70-yard TD pass with 6:07 to play and the Rebels led 14-0.
“We had a ton of explosive plays,” Comer said. “We have a very talented bunch. We have several kids who could take it to the house. It’s hard focus on just one kid.”
McKenzie was its own worst enemy during its next stretch and Clay County got on the board. The Bulldogs’ Alec Kerr broke 39 yards to the Rebel 2 where Joseph Marcom carried it though the rest of the way. After a properly-executed swinging-gate play on the try for two, the Bulldogs were within six, 14-8, heading into the second quarter.
It appeared Clay County was about to make a move after it intercepted Cassidy, but on the ensuing play, the Rebels recovered a fumble and got the ball back. Elijah Edmonson stuffed the play for a 7-yard loss and recovered the loose ball. After an exchange of possessions, the Rebels got the ball back with 6:13 to play.
Cassidy had two runs totalling 20 yards before hitting Webber on a 9-yard pass. A facemask penalty on Clay County moved the ball down to the 10, where Etijay Tharpe ran it in for the score. The kick failed, but the Rebels went into the locker room leading 20-8.
As the second half began, McKenzie may have pulled off one of the most important defensive stands of the game. Clay County moved to the Rebel 1 and went for it on fourth down. Drew Chappell stuffed Marcom for a 1-yard loss and the Rebels took over, ending the threat.
From there, the Rebel defense stood pat and engaged in stalemates with the Bulldogs, but with 9:47 left in the game, Cassidy located Webber for a 25-yard scoring pass. McKenzie led 27-8.
Clay County wasn’t done. With 2:28 to play, Kerr scored from the 16, but the conversion attempt failed. The Bulldogs trailed 27-14. McKenzie consumed the onside kick and appeared to be content to run the clock down for the victory.
But with 1:14 left in the game on fourth-and-11, Cassidy let it rip to Webber for a 55-yard TD pass, which essentially drove the dagger. McKenzie led 34-14. The gold ball was headed back to McKenzie.
“We got in that situation and I was nervous about punting. When they called time out, they had plenty of time left,” the coach said. ” It was fourth and 11. We gave them a running formation and threw it over their heads and they couldn’t catch us.”
The Rebels had 208 yards rushing to Clay County’s 199. Through the air, McKenzie had 168 passing yards; Clay County 32. For the game, the Rebels had 376 total yards to the Bulldogs’ 231.
McKenzie’s line play was a key contributor to the team’s big numbers this year.
“Our biggest concern going into the year was our line. They kept getting better and better. The Fayetteville was the game where they jelled,” Comer said. “Their best game was that state championship game. When you have four seniors up there, that’s the way it should be. This was a close bunch. They started communicating well and played very well together.”
Taylor carried 15 times for 163 yards and a touchdown. He also had one catch for 47 yards and a TD. Webber had three catches for 107 yards and two TDs.
The Rebels lose 15 seniors this year, one for every victory this season.
Clay County finishes the year at 13-2
Comer said his team’s support was exemplary this year.
“We had tremendous support this year. We had a huge crowd at Chattanooga and it was very loud,” he said. “We had a huge crowd at Orange Mound in Memphis (in the semifinals). We were very fortunate from that standpoint.”
Comer said there are high hopes for next season as well.
“The cupboard isn’t bare,” the coach said. “We have a good nucleus coming back and they are ready to get to work and start playing.”